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Don’t worry, be happy and try laughing at yourself

A new study says that it's a happiness strategy that works. It’s time to become the butt of your own jokes, says Brigid Moss

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By Brigid Moss on

Remember those times you made a bit of an arse of yourself? They’re likely seared on your brain – I know mine are. Maybe you added an inappropriate kiss to an email (all the time). Or realised post-meeting that you mispronounced a simple word (see: schedule, applicable, forte). Or tripped in front of someone you fancied. Or chatted to someone from TV as if you’d actually met them, only realising halfway through that you hadn’t (it was Alison from Masterchef 2017, she was very gracious, I went very red).

What did you do with your embarrassment? I’d argue that the only way to heal a humiliating wound is to laugh at yourself. And the really bad moments must be dramatised into a hilarious story for a good friend, because the healing only happens when you’re rolling around, laughing at what a dick you are.

In the past, psychologists lumped self-deprecating humour – making yourself the butt of the joke – in with all kinds of negative self-talk. The assumption was that joking you’re stupid/clumsy/gauche or any kind of flawed was the same as telling yourself that you’re those things. But a new study from the University of Granada shows people who use self-deprecating humour are, in fact, doing the right thing. As Jorge Torres Marín, one of the researchers says: “We have observed that a greater tendency to employ self-defeating humour is indicative of high scores in psychological well-being dimensions such as happiness and, to a lesser extent, sociability.”

Humour is also a very effective way of regulating your emotions – in a way that getting angry or crying just aren’t

“Saying something rude about yourself shows you have confidence and are comfortable enough to be able to be self-deprecating,” says neuroscientist Professor Sophie Scott, whose TED Talk, Why We Laugh, has been watched nearly three million times. “Humour is a useful social skill to acquire,” she says, citing Obama as a master of using it. “We are social primates and it’s a way of maintaining social affiliation.” It bonds the tribe, essentially. Humour is also a very effective way of regulating your emotions in a playful, safe and culturally acceptable way, she says – in a way that getting angry or crying just aren’t.

Remember that one of the rules of humour is not to punch down but to punch up, says Professor Scott, ie you can laugh at your boss, not someone who works for you. That makes laughing at yourself perfect, too – it’s not punching up nor down.

Self-deprecating humour is also useful to give you back control over a situation. Professor Scott, for example, has turned experiences both of having a suspected brain tumour and of being harassed by teenage boys into a routine for her stand-up show. “Making people laugh about an unpleasant situation is a way to get ownership,” she says. So, if you can, maybe it’s time to lighten up? Not least because if people are laughing with you, they're not laughing at you.

How to be funnier  

Advice from Dr Steve Cross (clevermakefunny.com), who trains scientists in stand-up comedy:

1 Be honest

“Emotionally engage with who you really are. Find what’s weird about you – the unique way you interact with the world. If you say, for example, “I make terrible decisions,” it strips the power out of any sad thing that happened. That said, in everyday life you’ve got to be careful. If you’re in a job interview, and you’re asked for a fault, and you say, “Over the years, I’ve picked some really terrible sexual partners,” that’s not good.

2 Have an attitude

“This is my shortest, simplest trick. Anything you come across, immediately have an attitude to it. If the thing doesn’t matter, your attitude should be incredibly strong, for comic purposes.” And if in real life you dislike something a little, for comedy purposes you immediately hate it. If you kind of like it, for comedy purposes you say you love it.

3 Bad things = material

"When bad things happen, most of us feel stronger emotions for a brief moment than we actually feel. That’s why you say, 'I want the ground to swallow me up.' Or, 'If I could die now, it would be fine.' When I train people in stand-up, whatever happens, whether they mess up a date or get appendicitis, their first comment becomes, 'I’ve got so much material out of it!'”


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