The Art of Lightening Up

by Robin Mitzcavitch, Director of Religious Exploration and Education

I’ve noticed that folks with the best sense of humor often have the most challenging occupations. It’s not a fluke. It’s an off-set. I also know that many people who are successful in the various avenues of life, usually possess a funny bone.

I watched an interview with the authors Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas as they spoke about their book, Humor, Seriously. Why Humor is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life.

The authors, who both teach at Stanford University, make some excellent points. They say that adding humor can drive actions, motivate communities to get excited about something that otherwise may look bland or too difficult. They affirm that humor unlocks creativity and relieves tense situations. Although we all may remember the stern leaders that we’ve had as professors or bosses, Aaker and Bagdonas discuss the fact that leaders who intersperse their sense of humor are proven to be 25% more effective in their roles. People who are working on teams and enjoying groups can choose to lighten things up! Then they can experience greater meaning in their joined space as well as feel more productive, with a stronger sense of closeness and common ground. Laughing together in a group setting can cause a profound neurochemical reaction, boosting endorphins, decreasing cortisol, releasing dopamine. Laughing lowers blood pressure. 

Humor should not be degrading, overly sarcastic, or otherwise hurtful. Even well-intentioned but poorly placed humor can cause harm because not everyone absorbs words in the same way.  Also, as you often don’t know what another person is going through in their life, not everyone is ready to hear light-hearted words when they’re in a hard place. When we’re using humor in varied settings we should be sensitive about crossing the line, by really thinking about how the funny comment may make another person feel. It’s important never to “punch down” when you’re trying to be clever. 

Humor cannot substitute the real feelings inside, but I believe it can off-set and augment them. Masking true feelings with humor is not healthy. I have heard the old adage that all great comedians are broken and depressed in real life. I hope that’s not true, but I can understand how people may cover up their sadness by always being the funny one in the room.

I’m a reader who likes to select dramatic books off the bookshelf. I frequently read works of historical fiction or biography which chronicle a dark time in history, or a current day challenge. I am drawn to serious films and documentaries. I was recently reading the hype about a series on Apple TV called Ted Lasso. I wanted to ignore it because it seemed frivolous, but then forced myself to watch it one day because I had a free trial of the streaming service. I was surprisingly pleased. I did not feel like I was wasting my time. While watching this well-done (in my opinion) show, my heart would swell, my brain flooded with those feel-good endorphins. There were even a few times when I literally laughed out loud in my living room. It actually startled my husband, because I don’t normally watch anything that causes that reaction. Too bad, right?  

I was laughing at joyful, smart humor; something I need more of in my life for certain. Maybe we all do. It dawned on me that this is precisely why Ted Lasso is so successful at this point in history. We need humor as a way to usher in some relief and bring humanity together.  Lightening up causes us to be more vulnerable and approachable and probably more reasonable. We need this so badly.

But now, I want to tell a serious story. I have permission to share this. There is a member of our Youth Group who has been struggling with depression for some time. She was hospitalized over the summer, but was currently back at home, adjusting to medication and on the road to healing. Last Monday, however, she ended up in the hospital again after she overdosed on her own prescription medicine. Thankfully, she is out of the ICU and on the long road again, with lots of support from her family and medical people.  

I wanted to talk to our Youth Group about this event and ask them how they felt and what they would like to do for their friend. They were very concerned, very serious, and saddened. They shared how they felt, speaking in hushed tones with respect and care. We all stood and put our hands to our hearts and had a moment of silence, focussing our positive intentions, wishes, and prayers toward this young person. Afterwards, we decided to make a “book” for this Youth Group member, full of inspirational words, support, and love.

When the teens had completed the pages, I took a look. It was beyond beautiful. Loving words filled the pages:  we miss you, we love you, we have your chair waiting for you, you’ve got this, you are special and wonderful.  My eyes filled with tears.  But also….next to the serious and important words were silly pictures: a young group member drawn as a muscle man with wild hair, funny “gaming” references, rainbows and balloons and smiles, and a few silly jokes.

After Rev. Aaron brought this book to the hospital, I heard from this teen’s mom. It was received with smiles and laughter. It lightened up the whole hospital room. This teen, shrouded in a serious battle, knew she was loved, and loved enough that she could share a laugh with her friends. It was a wonderful thing that our Youth Group teens put together, done instinctively, in the manner that meant so much more than only serious words would have. It was a little dash of humor that magically connected them with her.

During these stressful, pandemic days, I notice that our children are craving laughter- children of all ages. It diffuses the heaviness around them. During our Religious Exploration gatherings, we take time to talk about serious issues, but always leave room to lighten up the conversation. As adults, with stressful bridges to cross everyday, we need permission to sit back and laugh at something.  It’s ok.  It’s something that we can practice. It’s a balance of gravity and levity, like the beautiful sentiments in the book made by our Youth Group during a serious time. 

I will leave you with one last thing to ponder……

“What did the number zero say to the number 8?”

“Nice belt!”