Is it Time We Took Humour Seriously?

In a previous blog, I hoped it would be the last time I would talk about the coronavirus. I believed – and still do believe – that if we are to survive its economic repercussions, we need to start talking about the post-Covid world.

What has impelled me to break my self-imposed silence on this issue? I’m reading one social media post after another on LinkedIn (ostensibly a career-related platform) from people who quite frankly sound as if they are at breaking point. I’ve stopped looking at news websites because there’s hardly ever positive, optimistic news.

Let me turn the clock back eighty-one years to when the British population last experienced anything this severe.

January 1940

It is January 1940. Just eight months have passed since the defeated British Expeditionary Force was evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk. Since then, the Luftwaffe has tried to break the might of RAF Fighter Command and its airfields, and win air superiority over South East England in preparation for the invasion that even in England, must now seem inevitable.

The German offensive against Britain has turned to the streets of London and other major cities, where civilians have endured sleepless nights in air raid shelters while their homes and cities have been pulverised by high explosives and torched by incendiaries. This has continued for more than four months, and with no signs of abating, or that it will ‘only’ last another four months.

Every morning, civilians emerge from hiding places to a world often changed beyond recognition. Loved ones, neighbours and colleagues have died, homes have been damaged or totally destroyed. Gas, water and electrical supplies have been cut off. Many have no home to return to, or employment to support them.

January 2021

The situation today bears some similarities with that of eighty-one years ago, although arguably less extreme. We don’t know how much longer this will continue or how much worse it may yet become.

As with the bombs of the Blitz, we don’t know from one day to the next whether we will meet one ‘with our name on it’ as they used to say. And sadly, many of us have or might yet lose loved ones or acquaintances to this common enemy.

Many also face an uncertain future. The hospitality, tourism and retail sectors have been the hardest hit, but this is having repercussions throughout the entire economy. Many businesses are operating reduced hours, closing temporarily or even permanently.

The Blitz Spirit

What kept up the spirits of the British people in these dark times, and through the next five-and-a-half years of war? And how can we learn from it now?

Some attribute this resilience to a nation being united by adversity, while others give credit to the stirring speeches given by Winston Churchill, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that not everyone was selflessly pulling together and that Churchill and his speeches were not appreciated by all.

One thing we do know, however, is that our quintessentially British ability to laugh at ourselves and our misfortunes brought much-needed relief. It can be seen in the photographs of graffiti scrawled on the walls of bombed-out buildings and the temporary shuttering across shattered shopfronts, and it is remembered in the anecdotes of those who were there.

Humour vs. Frivolity

Last year, when the virus first lifted its ugly head, a few humorous comments appeared on social media that made observations on the lighter side of ‘the new normal’. These were almost immediately countered by protests that humour was inappropriate, as it showed disrespect for those who had died from the virus and insensitivity towards those who had lost loved ones.

At the time, I agreed with them, but ten months later I can also see a big difference between humour and frivolity.

Frivolity is the inability or unwillingness to take a situation seriously. A frivolous person is more likely to use humour in a way that will offend, and more likely to be equally careless about observing social distancing or lockdown rules.

Humour, on the other hand, is therapeutic. It releases tension, reduces blood pressure and stress hormones, releases endorphins, boosts immunity and prevents heart disease. It can also lighten what may seem an overwhelming situation.

And this is why I now believe that we need to restore humour to our communications. Like any other medication we need to use it wisely, appropriately and in the right dosage.

Humour won’t cure coronavirus or prevent its spread. It won’t alleviate the need for additional resources to fight the pandemic, or reduce the mortality rate. But it can make a positive contribution to mental health, physical resilience and general wellbeing.

And that’s something I think we need to take seriously.