For the first episode of her new podcast, “Sugar Calling,” Wild author Cheryl Strayed had a conversation with former mentor and fellow author George Saunders about the current pandemic. “I follow Carl Reiner on Twitter,” she said, “and [the other day], he Tweeted this – and it really stopped my heart – ‘For the first time in memory I see nothing in this world about which I care to joke.’”
“It felt true to me,” she added, asking Saunders what he thought about the 98-year-old comedian’s proclamation. Saunders replied, “When I was doing all that research on Lincoln [for his latest novel, Lincoln in the Bardo], I found out…he was majorly depressed, and the only way he could get himself out of it [was] to just – joke.” He continued, “We think that jokes and humor are usually a response to being happy…but I’ve also noticed for myself, that to allow myself to make a joke in a given situation, does something to my disposition. It lightens it, in a certain way.”
Humor, an unavoidable phenomenon during social interactions, has long been a tool for navigating through times of high stress, ambiguity, and adversity: a state that is all too familiar to us now. One could actually argue that in this unprecedented time, humor is needed more than ever to cope with increased virtual communication and physical distance, and to help reduce emotional distance when there is limited interaction with family and friends.
Studies have shown that using humor can be a way to hook attention and communicate information, control employee behavior, and help make connections within a team. It can reinforce group identity and teamwork, and ultimately, can be a powerful tool to strengthen relationships. Even more importantly, humor promotes psychological well-being and can buffer the negative effects of stress on mental health.
Of course, there is a distinction between positive and negative humor. Positive humor is viewed as cordial and aims to facilitate enjoyment and pleasure in others. It can be an important mechanism to divert negative feelings, a strategy for regulating emotion, and a behavioral method for coping during stressful times. It is able to create positive emotions, increase unity, and strengthen alliances by promoting psychological inclusion. With the current increase in physical distance, we should be focusing on decreasing any emotional distance that may be caused by lack of face-to-face contact.
On the other hand, the “dark side” of humor is aggressive and hostile, results in humiliation, and tends to be unreciprocated. This “put down” humor (mocking, telling inappropriate jokes) promotes dysfunction in teams, creates emotional distance between individuals, and prevents team members from maintaining strong bonds, thus increasing perceptions of exclusion. Needless to say, this type of humor is never conducive to a healthy work environment – much less in times of crisis.
But how much can positive humor really help us during quarantine and remote work? Well, studies with astronaut-like teams have found positive humor is viewed as crucial to maintaining strong bonds, reducing stress, and creating psychological safety within groups who are isolated for long periods of time. These include studies with crews at the International Space Station and crews who simulate a long duration space exploration mission (LDSEM) at the Johnson Space Center (i.e., Human Exploration Research Analog or HERA). Teams that are living and working together for 45 days (no, that was not a typo) inside HERA confirmed just how important a sense of humor was during isolation. As Julie Manson, a HERA participant and rocket scientist, put it in a recent interview: “A lot of things in HERA apply to day-to-day life—such as being open to change. Things don’t always go as planned, [and you need to be] flexible…open-minded, and [have] a sense of humor.” The latter becomes important to promote group spirit by alleviating tension in stressful atmospheres (or stratospheres): “We ate together and talked and laughed. It was a good day for our crew” (astronaut journal entry from Stuster, 2016, p. 36).
In times of chaos, adding humor to the situation can help someone feel as though they are in control, making the crisis more manageable. This does not mean downplaying an event or failing to take it seriously. Instead, this healthy defense mechanism can help someone regulate negative emotions while he or she maintains a very real perspective on the unpleasant conditions.
So, what can we do now?
Crack a joke here and there to lighten the mood and remember, it is okay to find the light in times of darkness. Everyone needs a good laugh once in a while – especially when we find ourselves being asked to rise to the occasion in an unprecedented way. Encouraging and reinforcing positive humor can improve organizational culture, bind individuals, and function as the emotional glue for your team. Nowadays, mutual support is even more important than ever: we are all in this together. As Saunders added, in wrapping up his response to Strayed: “My hope would be that Carl Reiner…if you got him into a situation, I’m hoping he would still find the joke, because it would be there for him.”
“Rest assured, George,” she replied, “two days later, I went on Twitter, and there was Carl Reiner, and he made me laugh.”
What is bringing your team levity during this turbulent time? Share with us in the comments below!