Tag Archive: humour

LaughterRemember when your mom used to tell you not to hold your face in grotesque positions for too long, otherwise it might stick that way? While mom may have ever-so-slightly exaggerated her words of caution (though frown lines can permanently leave their mark if said facial expression is held consistently for a lengthy period of time!), one could take the essence of this warning and reasonably apply it to psychological thought patterns.

In other words, “addictions” do not merely need to consist of physiological accommodations resulting from the regular ingestion of foreign substances. No, certain thought patterns – particularly of the negative variety – can equally become so ingrained, so habitual, that one doesn’t even realize they’ve become “stuck” in a singular mindset – that they’ve developed “pathological” thinking. This of course brings me to this month’s topic of discussion: that of, “psychological framing.”

I recently pitched a new idea at work. Let me preface the rest of this paragraph by stating it’s an idea that is quite dear to my heart. While it was generally well-received, I was provided with a decent size laundry list of necessary amendments before it could potentially be formally implemented. As fate would have it, I received this “lukewarm” news over the weekend, while I was vegging out watching the comedy flick, Evan Almighty.

Now anyone who’s studied cinema or even is an avid Oscars viewer knows that 9 times out of 10, accolades are given to dramas and tragedies over movies that itch your funny bone. This bias is equally perpetuated in our educational system in that, at least in my highschool experience, the only taste of the world’s greatest writer we received revolved around his tales of misery, betrayal, murder and star-crossed lovers.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, this makes sense: humans, given the treacherous terrain in which we found ourselves (in our primitive days), needed to have a stronger sensibility of negative stimuli in order to properly assess risks and therefore, aid in our self-preservation as a species. Believe it or not, having a pessimistic and/or paranoid perspective, at one point, was actually considered a valuable asset!

I suppose in order to continue to justify (at least on a subconscious level) why we rank tragedies supreme, we’ve developed complicated symbologies relating to media that assess ‘dark tales’ are somehow more illustrative of “universal” truths, wisdoms and experiences. We’ve convinced ourselves that despondent emotions and melodrama go hand-in-hand with the “human condition,” and that true “growth”, at least according to the world of pop culture, can only occur after deep suffering or loss.

Well, I hate to offend any aspiring filmmakers or actors, but the truth of the matter is that you can equally learn valuable lessons about others and yourself from laughing just as much as you can from crying. Humans are a complicated mess of logical and illogical thoughts, actions and motives and only considering one side of the equation will NEVER give you the full picture. But I’m not here to justify my preference when it comes to cinematic experiences 😉 Just saying…

The reason I bring up Evan Almighty is because this Steve Carell comedy is actually chalked full of stunning examples of “psychological framing”; the most quintessential of which is evident during God’s discussion with Evan’s wife about the true meaning behind the Noah’s Ark tale. Allow me to explain:

At this point in the film, Evan’s wife (portrayed by Lauren Graham of Gilmore Girls fame) is feeling confused, hurt, abandoned and perhaps most importantly, unacknowledged by Evan because, despite all of the negative repercussions that are coming about as a result of his inexplicable self-proclaimed mission to build an ark, he continues to stride forward. Accordingly, Graham comes to the conclusion that the Noah story is nothing more than the tale of an individual man taking on an individual quest – perhaps because he feels he needs to “prove something”, even if it’s at the detriment of everyone else in his life. God (depicted by Morgan Freeman) however presents a very different analysis.

Given that the crux of the Noah tale revolves around the importance of saving “two” of each species to ensure future propagation, Freeman suggests it’s actually the ultimate love story, rather than one celebrating man’s “independence” or “self-serving” motivations. His character goes on to surmise that the underlying theme above all others is actually the importance of family and companionship.

Okay okay, so how on earth does any of this relate to my work situation? Quite simply, the above depiction demonstrates one of the most basic tenants of “psychological framing”, moreover “psychological maturity”: there’s ALWAYS more than one way of looking at a given situation. I could be totally bummed and feel like a failure that I essentially got a “needs improvement” stamp on my dear-to-my-heart submission that I worked my ass off on OR I could acknowledge that I must have “something” if my employer was willing to take the time to provide constructive feedback so that I can improve upon the idea for future consideration.

What I’m hoping you’ll recognize from this movie critique/academic discourse/Rose’s real life example is just how POWERFUL one’s thought processes truly are. How one is able to react to a given situation is entirely determined by how they’re willing or unwilling to “frame” it.

In Graham’s explanation of the Noah tale, she “thinks” (or frames) herself as helpless (ie: it’s an independent quest in which she has no role) and therefore “becomes” just that (ie: she’s relegated to sitting back and letting her life and family fall apart). In contrast, in Freeman’s version of the story, because companionship and the importance of being supportive toward one’s partner, even if you don’t always get where they’re coming from is emphasized, Graham is able to regain a sense of agency and feel “important” and “essential” to her husband’s mission, even if his reasoning is beyond her.

So here’s the thing: life – it never goes exactly as planned. Even when you’re sure this time, things are failsafe, it’s always a smart move to have a contingency. So while you cannot – as much as you may like to try – control the external elements or individuals around you, you most certainly can take an active role in your own life. That role begins with how you think.

You can either see challenges or opportunities for growth, dismissals or lessons to be learned, failures or the beginnings of something new. The choice is yours. Don’t underestimate or take for granted your thinking power. If you want to be a success, know you already are.

Col11_JestEthel Barrymore, of the “royally-”deemed acting clan, once said, “you grow up the day you have your first real laugh…at yourself.” While Ethel was no psychologist, her words contain undeniable wisdom about human nature and the road to maturity: the ability to find humour within one’s own action(s) and/or reaction(s) is only possible once one is able to acknowledge his/her chosen behavioural responses as disproportionate (and ridiculous) to their impetus. In other words, as Spanish performer Diana Raquel Sainz purported, you can only laugh at yourself once you’re able to admit your faults and imperfections. In turn, this act promotes self-empowerment and growth. While the aforementioned is an important life lesson to learn, so too is knowing when humour is appropriate, welcome and in “good taste”. Allow me to explain:

About a month or so ago, I was hired on as a subcontracted agent to assist a website design firm with administrative, accounting and content updating duties. At first, I was completely stoked about the position given that all of the staff members were within my age range, the hours were flexible, work days didn’t typically start until noon and on top of that, the pay was decent.

I’m not certain whether to conclude my manager was sexist (ie: all of the other staff members were male) or just had some sort of superiority complex, but what started out as what I just brushed off as harmless wisecracking soon developed into constant assaults on my character for no reason I could conceive of, considering he never indicated he was anything but satisfied with my work. It became pretty evident to me that his use of thinly veiled insults passed off as “joking” (at my expense) was his means of maintaining control. I am after all more academically accredited than him, among other things.

Beyond paving the road to personal psychological maturity, Social Science academics have noted that humour serves many important cognitive, affective, physiological and social functions: it’s a proven “pick-me-up”, a tension reliever, a means of forging bonds with other individuals/groups, an effective teaching strategy, a way to lessen hostilities or simmer debates when they get out of hand, a vehicle for broaching taboo subject matter, a form of arousal and there’s even evidence to support there’s some truth behind the old adage, “laughter is the best medicine.”

Relevant to my recent job experience however is the anthropological finding that humour in the form of “mockery”, “ridicule” and “belittlement” is frequently used as a powerful symbolic weapon within pre-industrial Caribbean cultures to gain status, maintain the current pecking order and/or reaffirm social mores. The popularity of racist jokes within North American adds credence to this finding as their humour rests in pointing out widespread stereotypes of given ethnic groups, which only works to perpetuate said stereotypes. Moreover, it has been proposed that jokes rooted in discrimination stem from the subconscious fear of the dominant class that one day they’ll be overtaken by those they oppress. Ironically, these types of jokes are often “owned” by members of the minority groups they seek to insult; something that can be interpreted as an act of subversion/defence against ridicule OR the internalization of beliefs about one’s group held by the dominant class (Eck!).

Suffice it to say that for all of the joy incongruity, verbal wit, minor accidents (particularly those involving getting hit in the genital regions or stepping on animal feces), slips of the tongue and absurdity brings, humour can equally dampen your spirits, if done mindlessly or worst, maliciously.

To elicit the former, psychotherapist and mirthologist Steven Sultanoff offers the following five suggestions to ensure that one is using humour (in interpersonal settings) correctly and appropriately:

  • Only use humour if the target/recipient of your humour has previously used humour with you.
  • Only use humour when you have an established strong relationship with the target/recipient.
  • Only use humour in socially appropriate and light-hearted situations. Although some use humour to eliminate tension, Sultanoff suggests that this could lead to potentially undesirable reactions if taken too far.
  • If ever in doubt about one’s relationship with a target/recipient, test the waters first with self-depreciating humour to gauge the target/recipient’s response.
  • And finally (and MOST importantly), humour is used most effectively when employed to poke fun at a situation, NOT at another person or group of people.

To this, Hugh LaFollette & Niall Shanks of American Philosophical Quarterly add that humour is context-dependent, and relies largely on a listener’s current state. Even if a listener has the cognitive capacity and necessary information to find a particular joke or situation humourous, there are factors that may interfere with the processing of a funny stimulus including: one’s current psychological (mood) and cognitive/physiological state (ie: if they are experiencing pain), the environment (ie: if telling jokes seems inappropriate), and one’s ability to employ “psychic distance” (ie: the ability to detach from one’s personal beliefs and see situations from varying perspectives). Gender contributes even more complication to these theories seeing as guys can and do regularly tear each other ‘new ones’ without getting offended…or at least not showing they’re offended as socialization dictates that “real” men never display their feelings (but that’s a whole nother can of worms).

In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with a few final thoughts to mull over next time you’re contemplating adding some mirth to the mix: 1) ALL jokes are based on some sense of truth (albeit often exaggerated), 2) know your audience before you engage in displays of your wit, and finally 3) reserve your hilarity for its true purpose (ie: to produce happiness). If you’ve got nothing nice to say, don’t say it at all – coating it with the “oh I was just kidding” excuse is just as lousy as trying to convince someone that you only slept with their significant other because you were drunk. In two letters, it’s b.s.