THE BLOG

Does Humor Build or Destroy Intimacy?

03/06/2015 06:27 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2015

Expanding on the work of Voltaire, Immanuel Kant wrote in his Critique of Judgment that there are three things that humans can use to counter balance life's troubles: hope, sleep and laughter.

With the latter of Kant's threesome in mind, I emailed seven young people I'm mentoring, asking them to write about a funny story from their life. The exercise was part of a larger storytelling workshop I'm running with the Stuttering Association for the Young. I was asking them to find some element of humor in the situations that their stutter can create.

Some of them wrote to tell me how difficult the assignment was, how many troubles they were battling in their lives. I worried that they felt my exercise was making light of their difficulties. I worried that I was asking them to trivialize the experiences that meant so much to them. I was nervous that their writing would stray from the hard won insights they had gleaned so far.

Still they persisted, all of them, and they sent in their most hope-filled stories. They wrote specific, and often surprising, stories that showed them as the confident people they are. They got to reinvent their narratives and I got to laugh alongside them for a moment, to feel like all our sorrows were relieved.

I was, I am, enormously proud of them. Many of them wrote their most gripping stories so far. And yet, I saw that humor could also put up a wall. It could become something to hide behind.

I should have realized. It had, at times, been that way in my own life. Make the joke first, preempt it so it can't hurt you. Laugh the loudest. Tell the most jokes so people will like you. In spite of it. Stand on the outside and observe, so as not to be in the messy, intimate fray of conversation.

As Beth Kephart writes in Handling the Truth, "Funny lives in the overestimated, the caricature, the stretch." All the magnification and hyperbole that we use to make other people laugh does not always square with the quiet creation of true connections.

I can see the truth of Kephart's words in my own life, and yet there is in another truth that sits alongside it. The people I feel closest to are the ones I can laugh with, the ones who have a taste for both the tragic and the comic. It is just as difficult to spend our time around those who wallow in the difficulties of their life, as it is to feel close to a person who makes a joke out of anything and everything.

According to the research of psychologist William Hampes, having a sense of humor can generate intimacy and trust. Others are drawn to our playfulness and our jokes put them at ease. It connects us and liberates us. It allows us to see our struggles, for a moment, in a more optimistic light. It invites others to do the same.

I am suspicious of people who never laugh, and I am suspicious of people who laugh too much. I feel closest to those who see the absurdity in awful situations and who laugh as easily as they cry. And so humor becomes a kind of litmus test. Giggling together becomes the start of intimacy, the beginning of something deeper.

What about you? Do you think humor builds, or ruins, intimacy?