Humor is one of the most valued traits in positive psychology literature. People with a sense of humor have more positive moods, fewer negative moods, a more engaged and enjoyable life, and increased overall life satisfaction. Laughter, a physiological manifestation of humor, is beneficial for mental health because it can be a valuable way to cope with stress and can also enrich relationships. It also has physical health benefits, as it can relax muscles, improve blood circulation, reduce blood pressure and improve breathing.
Still, there is an important caveat. Dr. Rod Martin, who has meticulously studied the psychology of humor for over three decades, has distinguished different categories of humor, some of which can be beneficial to oneself or others, while others can be harmful. Affiliative humor, which is used in a non-hostile way to lighten the mood, to make oneself or others feel better, is psychologically beneficial. But when aggressive, used to put himself or others down, whether through sarcasm, teasing, derision, or ridicule, he can be psychologically damaging.
As a powerful example of affiliative humor, the Talmud (Ta’anit 22a) tells the story of Rabbi Berokah Hoza’ah who was walking in the marketplace when he met Elijah the Prophet. Rabbi Berokah asked Elijah if there was anyone in the market who deserved a share in the world to come. Elijah identified two average-looking individuals.
Investigating their secret, Rabbi Berokah asked them about their profession. They replied that they were jesters and when they see sad people, they cheer them up with a good joke. This documented case of affiliative humor shows that the Sages appreciated the healing power of humor and the extreme reward one receives for using this power to heal others.
In contrast, a paradigm of aggressive humor is the mocker (leitz). Proverbs, the sages of the Talmud, and subsequent works of religious and ethical growth in our tradition, all warn against becoming a scoffer. Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner elaborates on the spiritual disease that a scoffer represents, unable to revere, appreciate or experience fear. The mocker’s impulse is to be cynical and sarcastic, denigrating anything of importance. This is the trait embodied by Amalek, the archrival of the Jewish people.
Parshat Pekudei provides a detailed—and what at first glance seems pointless—account of all the materials used to build the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The Midrash inserts an awkward backstory, which suggests the context of this detailed narrative. 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 to excess, as he had more means and wealth than the rest of the nation. “He is responsible for all the money collected for the Tabernacle and there is no control,” his friend replied. “What are you waiting for? That he wouldn’t get rich?
It is quite remarkable that anyone could accuse Moshe, who led the Jewish people out of Egypt and spoke directly to God, of stealing his people from where God dwells. Yet it is the degenerative power of cynicism and mockery. This type of aggressive humor towards others can bring on a good, short-lived laugh, but it hurts relationships and is corrosive to living a meaningful life.
Let’s try not to fall into the trap of aggressive and cynical humor and instead harness the power of affiliative humor to improve our psychological and spiritual well-being.