THE BENEFITS AND DETRIMENTS OF HUMOR
One of the most lauded traits in the positive psychology literature is humor. People who have a sense of humor have more positive moods, less negative moods, a more engaged and pleasurable life, and an increased satisfaction with life in general. Laughter, the physiological manifestation of humor, is beneficial for mental health, as it can be a valuable means for coping with stress and can also enrich relationships. It has physical health benefits as well, as it can relax muscles, improve blood circulation, reduce blood pressure, and enhance respiration.
Yet, there is an important caveat. Dr. Rod Martin, who meticulously studied the psychology of humor for over three decades, distinguished between different categories of humor, some of which can be beneficial to the self or others, while others can be damaging. Affiliative humor, which is used in a non-hostile manner to lighten the mood, to make the self or others feel better, is psychologically beneficial. But when it is aggressive, used to put down the self or others, whether through the use of sarcasm, teasing, derision, or ridicule, it can be psychologically damaging.
As a powerful example of affiliative humor, the Talmud (Ta’anit 22a) relates a story about Rabbi Berokah Hoza’ah who was walking through the marketplace when he met Elijah the Prophet. Rabbi Berokah asked Elijah if there was anyone in the marketplace who merited a share in the World to Come. Elijah identified two average looking individuals.
Investigating what their secret was, Rabbi Berokah asked them their occupation. They replied that they were jesters and when they see people who are sad they cheer them up with a good joke. This documented case of affiliative humor shows the Sages appreciated the healing power of humor and the extreme reward one receives for using this power to heal others.
In stark contrast, a paradigm of aggressive humor is the scoffer (leitz). Proverbs, the sages of the Talmud, and later works of religious-ethical growth in our tradition, all caution against becoming a scoffer. Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner elaborates on the spiritual sickness that a scoffer represents, being unable to revere, appreciate, or experience awe. The impulse of the scoffer is to be cynical and sarcastic, denigrating anything of significance. This is the trait embodied by Amalek, the archrival of the Jewish people.
Parshat Pekudei provides a detailed—and what at first glance seems unnecessary—accounting of all of the material used to construct the Tabernacle in the desert. The Midrash inserts a bothersome backstory, which suggests the context for this detailed account. Moshe overheard a conversation between two scoffers. One pointed to the robust size of Moshe’s neck and thighs, accusing Moshe of eating and drinking in excess, as he had more means and wealth than the rest of the nation. “He is responsible for all of the money collected for the Tabernacle and there is no oversight,” his friend responded. “What do you expect? That he wouldn’t get rich?”
It is rather remarkable that someone can accuse Moshe, who led Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt and spoke directly to God, of stealing from his people in the place where God dwells. Yet, this is the degenerative power of cynicism and scoffing. This aggressive type of humor against others, may get a short-lived good laugh, but it damages relationships, and is corrosive to living a meaningful life.
Let us try not to fall into the trap of aggressive and cynical humor and instead harness the power of affiliative humor to enhance our psychological and spiritual well-being.