S1E30 Humor

Everyone loves a good laugh, right? Have you ever watched some of those videos online of a child belly-laughing? There are real psychological benefits of humor, including cultivating joy and connection, increasing psychological flexibility, and tolerating distress. In this episode, Dr. Rubin highlights how humor may behaviorally present in both helpful and unhelpful ways, and Dr. Pete shares how Buddhist teachings conceptualize humor,  including pop culture examples (e.g. Bernie Glassman and Jeff Bridges, “The Dude and the Zen Master”).




Nikki: Pete one thing that you and I really like to use both clinically and in our personal lives is humor, right?

Pete: Sometimes I think I'm funnier than I am.

Nikki: No, I think you're very funny. I'm sure the same could be said about me. But we wanted to talk about humor today because it's been a rough year.

Pete: Yeah. Let's say that, actually, because I think part of when we were deciding for this topic is because we could actually use some light hearted…

Nikki: Right, we want to talk about humor for a while today seems like the day to do it so
Let’s do it.

Pete: That’s true.

Nikki: But also because, and this is something I don't know if a lot of folks think about this, when they think about humor is that humor really aids and cultivating flexibility. And it's something that we think a lot about and third wave cognitive behavioral therapies, we're trying to increase psychological flexibility. And interestingly enough, being able to have some lightness does help create perspective. And we'll talk in a minute to distinguish that between because humor can also be used as an avoidance strategy, like I call…

Pete: I was thinking that too, because a lot of times, if you work with couples, sometimes the couples use humor to deflect what's going on in their [inaudible 01:36].

Nikki: Yeah. I like to call it the Chandler Being Syndrome. Sometimes I'll be like, you know, you kind of have Chandler being syndrome your, like, self-deprecating to like, or, or making fun of something to move away from what's uncomfortable. So I think we want to distinguish between that as well. So, before we move into the not so helpful parts of humor, I don't know like, how does that come up for you not just clinically, but I don't know in your life, like, Is that like a value you hold in high regard or something you're actively connecting with or it just kind of shows up randomly?

Pete: Yeah, I think it's about being amused. I mean, that's part of the oxford definition. And I know you’d like yourself some definition.

Nikki: I do.

Pete: Also I think, I noticed, especially from like a Buddhist perspective, that sometimes like life is so serious, because we accept that it's suffering. And I think I forgot sometimes about humor. Right and I think sometimes in life, in relationship and family, I think sometimes you forget to like laugh. And so my mom is really good at that, because she has a warped sense of humor and I got some of that. So I'm the person that when you fall, I laugh first and make sure you’re okay second. I can own that about me, right? Like my family, my partner, we all need to accept that's a part of how I operate. But again, I think it's like to remember, like sometimes you forget to like use humor.

Nikki: Yeah, because to your point, and I like that you're linking it to sort of obviously, the thread and Buddhist philosophy around like life is suffering and there's pain is an inevitable part of being alive. Well, so is joy, right? Like I actually think a lot about like, when I'm working with patients on as per usual mindfulness practices. You know, one thing that ends up coming up a lot is I'll say like, you know, mindfulness isn't just about experiencing and paying attention to the uncomfortable stuff, even though we do a lot of that in our clinical work. It's about paying attention to what is so you know, sometimes what is pleasant or playful or joyful, and I agree with you, I think we often get away from that, right?

Pete: Yes.

Nikki: Like that we can sort of get the silly brain, you know, it gets really stuck on either, like, always chasing pleasure or always trying to focus on the serious. And I think it's important for people to know, like, humor, if that's something someone connects with as a value, it’s okay to laugh. It's okay to be light about things. I actually, I laugh a lot in session. Like I think a lot about when I was because I'm human, but I was thinking about when I was on my postdoc and my dear colleague and friend and friend colleague of Peters as well, we worked on the same…

Pete: Yeah, give her a shout out.

Nikki: Yeah, Dr. Mia Sage, amazing clinician. She and I shared a wall. Our offices were next to each other and there was like a vent about it. We're just getting to know each other and she used to say, Oh, I just love it because sometimes I can just hear you laughing through the vents, and she would say sounds like you're having such a good time in there.

Pete: Therapy is fun.

Nikki: Therapy can be fun, and my patients make me laugh sometimes.

Pete: Yeah, we're going to laugh when something's fun.

Nikki: Yeah.

Pete: And then maybe even fake laugh if it's not that funny, but we want to…

Nikki: I was going to say, I don't actually fake laugh like if I'm laughing at someone’s joke.

Pete: You don’t fake laugh?

Nikki: No, no, I mean, I have in my life but…

Pete: I don’t fake laugh either.

Nikki: Yeah, yeah, you give a genuine Yeah.

Pete: Yeah, you and I are the more genuine than fake. Well, big time, but like, everybody does a fake laugh once in a while.

Nikki: That's true, it's like telling a white lie like sometimes that's more effective.

Pete: Yeah, totally.

Nikki: Yeah, but for me humor like I find like clinically and then obviously my own life is that not only is it fun or it feels nice to experience that joy. It does help change perspective, right like sometimes, making a joke about something it just kind of like shifts us out of like a stuck lens that we can be in. And that's like, personally why I am, so your mom is, how did you described her?

Pete: She’s worked.

Nikki: Yeah, I described mine as like really off color.  Well. I have two types. I also have like a 12 year old boy sense of humor as well. But I do I like a really messed up joke sometimes.

Pete: And I think it's also because you're smart and so I think smart people tend to also have different types of humor. Oh, that could have been probably its own episode. Because there's like dry humor, there's like intellectual humor was probably different types of humor. I'll look it up.

Nikki: Well, there are I think, thank you for saying I'm smart. I think I like the off color stuff because to me I like sort of sometimes like dark satire because it's about like seeing things in another light or like seeing truths that maybe like, otherwise we wouldn't have access to also my own self.

Pete: Yeah. All right, so there are nine different types of humor. I'll tell you let's see, so there’s physical self-deprecating, surreal, improve, Witt wordplay, topical, observational, bodily, like a fart I guess, and dork.

Nikki: That's the 12 year old voice.

Pete: Oh yeah, or like 69. Yeah. So there are nine different types of humor, which I just looked that up. You and I probably never knew that those existed, but they make sense. I mean, we could think about different types.

Nikki: Yeah, they make sense.

Pete: And I think that definitely, we're not dork. I would say we're I'm probably more physical like I love when people fall.

Nikki: Yeah, you gave that one away, right? I mean, you'd look like a three stooge’s kind of humor.

Pete: Yeah, yeah. And I again, I think that's why I don't always love some of these comedies, especially these days I feel like a lot of them are the same. There are certain comedies that I've watched, that'll go back to from like, my childhood are something that I still find funny because they're a little bit more in depth or characters. Rather than like, hangover. Wonderful for those people, people love that, but it just wasn't…

Nikki: Right, it doesn't resonate. Yeah.

Pete: Watched it. It was okay, not going to go put it on again…and my go to, like, when I'm feeling down, or know that I've been lacking humor, America's Funniest Home Videos.

Nikki: You really like the, like [inaudible 08:14]

Pete: It’s at the 30th season and still.

Nikki: Seeing them for me when I hear that? Yeah, it's actually funny now that you're talking about this, because I don't think I totally knew this about you. Honestly.

Pete: Which part?

Nikki: That you loved physical comedies.

Pete: Yeah. I don't know if I ever really framed it either like I think.

Nikki: Because Pete and I laugh a lot you probably can tell from the podcast.

Pete: Our microphone, sorry one day we'll have good microphones, maybe.

Nikki: One day we'll get better. You won't hear the word, the P-sound which is also very annoying.

Pete: Thank you for tolerating that, with 200 people listening out there.

Nikki: Right, right.

Pete: That was self-deprecating humor, I just use it. There it is.

Nikki: You did, there it is. So maybe like in my experience when you and I are joking together, like maybe we do some self-deprecating humor, but I experienced us having like that off color humor quite a bit like you can do some zing personality.

Pete: Oh yeah. I wonder if that I should have read the description. I wonder if that's the dark because like I also there should be a category of like politically incorrect.

Nikki: That's why I say it's like off color, something like that.

Pete: Yeah, it's like off color. Yeah, I can throw down with that.

Nikki: Yeah…

Pete: But I think when you do some like intense cultural training like I do, or like we've done, and also, for example, like say if you work in, as we've you and I met in Newark, with some pretty intense pathology cases. Like thinking about the Newark psych ER, and so a lot of staff that work there full time, we would call them cynical or judgmental and they use humor for preservation for a job that is really intense like that. So I think people use this as, right?

Nikki: Well, yeah as a coping strategy. Well, there are two sides of this that I'm thinking about another showing up for me. So one is, and I'm pretty sure I read this article in The New York Times A while ago, because it was talking about actually, like the role of humor in Jewish culture and I’m Jewish. And so, like talking about sort of historically, like, things that Jews have experienced that that's been sort of one coping strategy culturally that has developed and they were referencing some other contexts like that Pete like talking about, like when people work in really like difficult jobs. And so I do think that that's important and for folks to recognize that that can be really helpful. Show them the other side of especially speaking on, like the off color jokes, I also think that maybe this is where we sort of transitioned to talk about where humor can sort of be used as a way to hide or to avoid.

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: But there's also a lot of humor that humors to some degree, obviously subjective not everybody connects with every type. Some of it though is offensive, right, or is not sensitive and people sort of use that they'll say, this shows up in our culture a lot where people say, Well, I was just joking. But that's actually cruel, what you're saying, right? Or unkind or insensitive or narrow minded, right? And I think that it's very hard sometimes for people to recognize, I don't know, like, sometimes where’s the line? But, but even more so like, sometimes, like, when is it fitting from a functional perspective as behaviorists that we are? What is the function to connect with others? Right, and to experience joy or is the function to elevate oneself put somebody else down or to avoid right?

Pete: Yeah, well, that's beautiful from a behavioral perspective, because we know and as you talked about humor, the self-deprecation when I read that, like, that's huge for comedians, right. Like there's so many, I guess, I don't know if there's like research on this, but certainly, like the case studies that a lot of comedians were super depressed. Many are not even alive today because they took their lives.

Nikki: Right or they struggled with severe substance dependence, right. I'm thinking of like, Chris Farley.

Pete: Yeah. Robin Williams.

Nikki: Yeah, there are a lot of comedians that are really suffering.

Pete: It's this avoidance, right, like just this inability or difficulty to contact what is. And so I think that's where behaviorism comes in, where we're trying to bring what is embrace it. And so like, I embrace like, there's some times when I'm like, Look, it's been a day, it's been a week, America's funniest home videos. And honestly, I'll watch myself from a mindfulness perspective, I both zoned out and I watched myself start to feel better. I’ll make a couple of good laughs; it’s usually a fall down the stairs. You know, it's something that I watch, right. But I was also thinking like, it was Saturday Night Live, had Dave Chappelle host recently.

Nikki: Oh yeah, and I just watched that one.

Pete: Right. And so I was wondering, like, again, some self-deprecation there but also, like he goes in on race, on politics. And that, I think, speaks to the description you gave about, say, Jews, with some of the humor and how it is insulting. And there are certainly people, especially in today's political world that listened or watched that episode [inaudible 13:35] and they were like, Well, you know…. this black guy type of thing. Oh, my God, I just cursed because that's what he does too, sorry.

Nikki: Well, that's right.

Pete: I don't know [inaudible 13:45].

Nikki: I think we often say it's explicit. That's fine… hopefully. Yes. Well, we'll get to that point. It's interesting to bring up Dave Chappelle because I think he's an example where like, and I'll say, I've always really loved his humor just because again, it's like very off color.

Pete: It's very of color. Yeah.

Nikki: But I don't like it because it's off color. I like that the off color helps us to just access certain truth like I said, certain truths that maybe wouldn't have been as clear before. Though I will say, you know, and I'm somebody I don't find myself somebody to be easily offended or overly sensitive. I tried to watch his Netflix special.

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: I think it's called sticks and stones?

Pete: I would not know.

Nikki: It’s the most recent one, I think is like six months or a year ago, a year ago, I think, and I couldn't watch it actually because he makes a lot of jokes about sexual abuse of Michael Jackson and sort of dismissing other…

Pete: Too soon is that social thing.

Nikki: Yeah, and I thought it was just not, I didn't think it was funny so, I think also something that, you know, people can keep in mind with humor and set again, like everything. Like, there's not just like this one linear definition of like, this is always funny. This is never funny. This is always offensive; this is never offensive, that there's like flexibility and a context. And, you know, I don't know, I think it's just something that people have to be mindful of for themselves that, you know, like, again, kind of thinking about the, at least for me, like the function  of what the humor is for, like, Is it about hurting other people? Is it about putting somebody down, right?

Pete: So I want to I'll defend him for a moment. And also I'll be honest, I don't love his humor. So I had friends who are like, ‘oh my God I can't wait for him to host that live’ and I was like, I'm going to watch it because I want to study but I don't love it. Maybe for the reason we’re describing.

Nikki: Yeah.

Pete: But I think that there are I lost my train of thought so. I wanted to share that I don't really love it. And I think that, you know, people will be turned off by it, I think I find some other things. But what I was going to say was my teacher in Zen, his main teacher that he reflects on from Zen, there was Yamato Roshi, who's in Japan. But then Bernie Glassman was here in New York. So Bernie Glassman, another Jewish Buddhist person.

Nikki: Yeah, define that for our listeners.

Pete: If you ever see other episodes, I will tell you what that is. But Bernie Glassman is like a really advanced teacher in the States. And so he got to be really friendly with Jeff Bridges and when they did Jeff to the movie, ‘The Big Lebowski,’ that character was really based on a lot of his Zen training. So Jeff Bridges has studied with Bernie Glassman. So it's actually a book called ‘The dude in the Zen master.’

Nikki: Oh Kool. Pete’s showing me the book right now.

Pete: Yeah, and for those watching on the YouTube channel, there may not even exist yet, but that was self-deprecation humor. So yeah, the idea even in Hollywood right there Jeff Bridges really channeled his end training to try and bring into the character of the dude in The Big Lebowski. And it was all from Bernie Glassman so this this book about the dude in the Zen master was about their, how weird it is that they connected and like what their journey and connection has been and how Zen you know, that isn't in humor? Like, I don't think we have that in like the traditional writings. But it certainly does exist.

Nikki: So that's really interesting and cool to hear, too. Because that makes me think like, well, even if it's not maybe outlined in, like you said, the traditional. What are they called cons? Is that right?

Pete: Cons, yeah.

Nikki: Yeah, like maybe there's not one about humor that also like if the idea is, about gaining perspective and flexibility, like humor is can be a vehicle for that. And I feel like I've read some things where you can joke around, I feel like the Dalai Lama is like, kind of funny. I think he's like, said some light hearted things.

Pete: But I’ve never met him. But he is every time I've seen him, I've seen him. I've seen him two or three times. And he is funny. Like, one time it was an event, you could send in a question and someone asked a question. And he made a joke about like cell phones. And they also made a joke about like; you're not just going to go sit up on the mountain by yourself meditating.

Nikki: Right.

Pete: Well, to your point. I think it's about the flexibility. I think through meditation and mindfulness, we can find humor.

Nikki: In this difficult life.

Pete: In this difficult life and in any of those nine different kinds of ways.

Nikki: Yeah, yeah. That's so beautiful. I'm glad I wasn't Miss remembering that. Like, I feel like my sense of him can also never having had the honor of meeting him, seems like he's got some jokes in there. So, you know, hopefully, you guys can take from this that. It's okay to connect with humor, especially in this difficult time. And in fact, you know, maybe that's the medicine that we all need right now.

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin.

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors, Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only