There’s an easy way to be funnier and more genuine without turning into a jerk

The fine line between a laugh and a scream.
The fine line between a laugh and a scream.
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall
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You have a sense of humor, no doubt. But do you find life funny, really?

Like, right now, dear reader. Do you see yourself, before a screen, anxiously reading yet another article on becoming awesome? Do you get that the quest for perfection is humorous?

The Tibetan Buddhist monk Chogyam Trungpa believed you can have a better time by lightening up. ”Humor here does not mean telling a joke or being comical or criticizing others and laughing at them. A genuine sense of humor is having a light touch, not beating reality into the ground,” he wrote in his now classic 1984 text, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior.

The monk—who was infamous for his love of wine and women—enjoyed life. He thought anyone could rekindle their zeal for existence by simply seeing. He wrote:

To begin with, you have to look at your ordinary domestic reality: your knives, your forks, your plates, your telephone, your dishwasher and towels—ordinary things. There is nothing mystical or extraordinary about them, but if there is no connection with everyday situations, if you don’t examine your mundane life, then you will never find any humor or dignity, or ultimately, any reality.

Looking at reality and connecting with it helps you to see it’s manageable and pretty amusing. For example, we have a lot of tools meant to make life easier but we’re frustrated by them. But if the dishwasher is full, you empty it. No big deal. Rather than acting like everything is a burden, we deal, because we are basically free and can manage. This uplifts us, Trungpa says, and teaches us to see that life is funny.

“Life is a humorous situation, but it is not mocking us,” the monk wrote. In fact, many things conspire to go our way but we tend not to notice. Take you, dear reader. You breathe, your heart beats, you’re apparently literate and have access to the internet and presumably are experiencing other good things like the shining sun or shelter from inclement weather. By connecting with the basic and mundane, whatever the situation, and seeing absurdity even when things go awry, Trungpa says you can be genuine and light, truly humorous.

This view is echoed by Rod Martin, a psychologist who started studying humor seriously in the 1980s. In 2003, Martin concluded that there were four humor styles: self-enhancing, affiliative, aggressive, and self-defeating.

Self-enhancing humor involves smiling wryly at life’s absurdities, using humor to manage reality. Affiliative humor is joking around, cleverness designed to make people like us. Aggressive humor is sarcasm and having a laugh at the expense of others, ridicule and teasing. Finally, self-defeating humor is making yourself the butt of jokes to find favor with others somehow.

Of the four approaches, Martin found that affiliative and self-enhancing humor are healthiest, linked to mental well-being, openness to experience and extraversion. Aggressive and self-defeating humor, especially in excess, tended to lead to anxiety and neuroticism. But of all four categories, self-enhancing humor is especially useful for personal mental well-being, providing an effective mechanism to cope with real circumstances.

Mistakes, fumbles, faux pas, failures, plans gone awry, and awkward moments all happen. They’re essential experiences that form us and are often quite funny, especially retrospectively. Trungpa writes, “If we begin to perk up, we will find that the whole universe—the seasons, the snowfall, the ice and the mud—is also powerfully working with us.”