Humor and Aging

O’Reilly was on trial for armed robbery. The jury came out and announced “Not guilty.”

“Wonderful,” said O’Reilly. “Does that mean I can keep the money?”

This is called an incongruity-resolution joke. The incongruity is, of course, that O’Reilly cannot be guilty and not guilty at the same time.

While I “get” this joke, I don’t find it especially funny. A recent study in the journal Gerontology tells me that as I age, I may find these kinds of jokes increasingly challenging as the incongruity may be less and less obvious. The study also affirms what other studies have shown, that older people (over age 60 in this case) enjoy humor more as they age, but may find the complexity of some jokes beyond them.

Here’s one I find funny:

My grandmother started walking five miles a day in her sixties. Today she is 95. We have no idea where she is.

Even though I do appreciate the grandmother joke, I have never been a joke teller or a great appreciator of jokes in general. I am quite certain that I have a sense of humor, but most of my humor making and processing is self-deprecating (making fun of myself). This seems to be true for most women, especially older women. As I recently watched a Top 10 Women Comics review, including Phyllis Diller, Ellen deGeneris and Sarah Silverman, self-deprecating humor seems to be common among these professional funny women too. A newer comedienne on the scene, Hannah Gadsby, an Australian, said in a recent interview in the New York Times, that she was tired of self-deprecation and wanted no more of it. Older men, as a generalization, continue to find other-deprecating humor (making fun of someone else) funnier. Perhaps women are moving in this direction, although I as a non-comic find making fun of others cringeworthy.

Finding the humor in everyday life is an essential survival skill as we age beyond peak vitality. Norman Cousins, an editor of the Saturday Review and well-known peace activist, wrote Anatomy of an Illness (published in 1979) about his self-created healing process from a rare connective tissue disease, suffered at age 49. Along with massive doses of vitamin C, he self-prescribed 10 minutes of funny movies several times a day. He wrote that for each 10-minute segment he would get 2 hours of pain-free sleep. What did he watch? Mostly Candid Camera and Marx Brothers movies. Cousins went on to suffer two heart attacks before a third took him in 1990 at the age of 75. All during this time, he continued to write and practice positivity and humor as a way to be healthy.

My friend Andrea wrote this poem several years ago as she lost incremental amounts of mobility. She was still walking all over her adopted hometown of Oakland, California, but Ubering home from her jaunts as she experienced more and more fatigue. Here is what she wrote:

There will be no memorial for this babe.

My family doesn’t do that sort of thing.

No obituary is being written or planned.

Just blank out my Facebook page

and send out an email with a few dozen cc’s,

“She’s gone.”

Therefore my next of kin will be spared

completing a credible list of my accomplishments

of questionable value:

“She was never in jail.

She never got drunk.

She joined a lot of clubs but got out of most of them.”

You get the idea.

Let’s just say,

“She’s gone.”

Thanks for the memories.

I know that this poem is about death, but it is full of whimsy, self-deprecating humor, and a light touch. I return to it often when I think I am taking myself and, whatever current crisis I am in, too seriously.

Whatever we think is funny needs enhancing. Another friend said of humor, “Some of us find humor in everyday life. From the slightly odd, to the knee-slapping hysterical situation, there is something funny in almost everything, if you look for it.” That’s my aim. Not to understand Freud’s theory of humor, not to tell the best joke, but to find funny every day and enjoy it.