Laughter is among those involuntary physical responses that erupt from within the body’s core. These render us helpless to resist our immediate feelings, as they momentarily wield complete control over both mind and behavior, like an orgasm, sneezing, giving birth or…well, vomiting. (Sorry to mention that last one but, let’s face it, it belongs there.) A quality of any involuntary response is its honesty. My Mexican friends have a saying: “Little children and drunks never lie”. So too with those swept up in a fit of hilarity, I would suggest. Laughter is inimical to pretense, dissembling, and posturing. It momentarily disables the faculties of self-monitoring and self-control, and so what emerges is an utterly sincere expression of one’s mind.
Laughter is a total, unpremeditated response to having received some unexpected new information about oneself, another, or life itself that disconfirms what we presumed to be true. It occurs when the awareness of an incongruity between what we expect or believe and the actual state of things forces itself upon us. Laughter is an involuntary reaction to the absurdity of this discrepancy, a “shock response” to the sudden influx of the new. This is why we cackle uncontrollably at the sight of a policeman picking his nose or a minister getting drunk and telling ribald stories: these are cases in which the fakery of the “social self” has been undermined, exposing something more genuine (if not always pleasant) dwelling behind the persona.
All this to say that a consequence of laughter’s implicit honesty is that it is potentially subversive to our taken-for-granted assumptions about ourselves and life. We laugh, in part, because we have seen through something artificial and preposterous in ourselves, another, or in a particular circumstance. As an expression of the phenomenon of humor, laughter can be an unchecked and jarringly authentic reaction to the realization that “the king has no clothes”, as it were. It is an expression of the encounter with the truth that erupts naturally from within the body. Hence, it is the case that comedians use humor to deftly deconstruct our carefully crafted unconscious assumptions about the meaning of things, though in a way that is non-confrontational and palatable. The audience’s laughter signals that they have understood and embraced the challenge to their presumptions about reality.
We commonly feel that people who lack a sense of humor are dull and uninteresting. The humorless person typically takes themselves with utter seriousness. They cannot be surprised or shocked by any new information about themselves, because they assume that they completely understand every aspect of their motives, needs, and wishes. That is, they quietly insist that they are no more than what they imagine themselves to be. Such an attitude carries with it a concreteness borne of the inability to surrender oneself to the playful dismantling of the self-image. We are constantly “on egg shells” around the humorless person because we know that anything we might present to them that is unfamiliar or inventive raises their ire, leading them to issue swift rebukes. They presume that reality is an objective and static “thing” whose nature and meaning is (or should be) completely self-evident, and so can become quite punishing toward anyone who doesn’t see things similarly. Such a person is often interpersonally difficult and grating, because they cannot easily entertain the ambivalence and uncertainty that always occurs when any two separate minds engage one another in dialogue.
This gets to another point about humorlessness: it stems from the anxious wish to strip reality of its complexity in the quest for the imagined security of a universe in which everything is accounted for in advance. In contrast, laughter requires the ability to embrace a state of incongruity between what is assumed to be true and the fact that new data contradicts and upends this assumption. The humorless person is braced against any such surprise. Hence, humorlessness reflects a desire for a seamless, uncomplicated experience of reality, one in which everything flows together in complete, uninterrupted harmony. The desire for an utterly consistent experience of life leads the individual to be intolerant of differences. Their demand for consistency in their own perceptions quickly extends to include those of other people. He or she unconsciously assumes that any two sane people considering a phenomenon will come to identical conclusions about the nature of their separate experiences. Therefore, they typically see a divergence of opinions between themselves and another about the meaning of an event to indicate a flaw in the other’s reality-testing. It is no surprise that such an individual often imagines that they are a hard-nosed “realist” who only deals in objective truths, while more imaginative, playful visions of life are dismissed as dreamy distortions appropriate only to childhood.
Such a person doesn’t feel that their mind actively interprets experiences, and, in fact, may lack awareness that they harbor needs, goals, and biases that color their particular vision of life. What is “real” is thought to be “out there”, in some pristine form, waiting to be discovered. They don’t experience their minds as actively working to process and make sense of the world. Rather, they naively believe that any normal mind simply and perfectly reflects the external world, like a mirror. Therefore, anything in reality can be fully known simply by looking, goes this way of thinking, with nothing to question or mull over. Obviously, the element of surprise is eliminated in this way of being, in that all contingencies and inconsistencies in reality have been accounted for and explained in advance. And with the element of surprise gone, so too goes laughter.
Such an individual may be overly identified with common social values, ideals, and role definitions, which they rely upon to validate the belief that what is “real” is handed to one from some unassailable external authority. Normative ideas and customs are taken in uncritically by this person, and the self is constructed in conformity to these authoritative sources. Hence, we see that humorlessness is often associated with the state of being rule bound. This is one reason that the “foil” in a comedy is often a character who is overly wedded to common, pedestrian values about “upright” or moral behavior, rules for life with others that are taken with the utmost gravity. Humor erupts as this character’s earnest submission to these standards are exposed as fraudulent by the comic hero’s childlike and playful freedom.
All this to say that the humorless individual is completely identified with a mental construction of the self that does not allow for anything novel, unusual, or daring. They have foreclosed on the possibility of transcending certain entrenched and narrow visions of who they are and what they desire. This leads to emotional constriction and the collapse of the imagination, specifically, the playful readiness to experiment that is essential to the joyful expansion of personal identity. This is a variant of an obsessional adaptation to life; like all obsessional states, humorlessness rejects any way of being-in-the world that doesn’t conform to what is already known – or assumed to be known – about the self. The humorless person lives in a state of self-deception, posturing as someone who is completely certain as to who they are, what they desire, and how life is to be lived. A smug narcissism is embedded in this self-certainty, a conviction that one has a superior grasp of reality, while others are consumed with foolish fairy tales.
Now, to be clear, the foregoing describes a pure example of this character type. Thankfully, few such individuals actually exist in the world, apart from those suffering from certain kinds of neurological deficits, severe forms of autism, psychotic conditions, and/or primitive personality disorders. However, the qualities of emotional and intellectual rigidity described above exist within all of us, to a limited extent, in those areas of our minds in which we are unconsciously dominated by self-defeating, narrow and constricted ways of understanding ourselves. Let’s face it: there are corners of our lives in which we remain unreflective, hypnotized, as it were, by the belief that we see ourselves and/or others in a way that is precisely aligned with reality. (To be exact, in these dark, unreflective psychic domains we do not see our views of the world as expressing an underlying belief, since we know that a belief is something that implies relativity. Rather, we simply feel that we are responding with utter reasonableness to something that is plain to see; we do not conceive of ourselves as adhering to one vision of reality existing alongside others, but as conforming to a self-evident, that is, an absolute, fact.) It is in relation to these dimensions of experience that we are humorless, unable to discern that there is anything contradictory or incongruous in our “take” on reality. Psychotherapy is a process of addressing these circumscribed failures in our awareness of reality. When a psychotherapy patient is able to laugh at themselves, then we can be assured that therapy is helping, in that such laughter implies that one has transcended the egoistic need to defensively curtail one’s awareness of the multiple ways in which to construe existence.