There is an old Japanese story about a monk and a samurai.
One day, a Zen monk was going from temple to temple, following the shaded path along a babbling brook, when he fell upon a bedraggled and badly bruised samurai.
‘Whatever happened to you?’ asked the monk.
‘We were conveying our lord’s treasure when we were set upon by bandits. But I played dead and was the only one of my company to survive. As I lay on the ground with my eyes shut, a question kept turning in my mind. Tell me, little monk, what is the difference between heaven and hell?’
‘What samurai plays dead while his companions are slain! Shame on you! You ought to have fought to the death. Look at the sight of you, a disgrace to your class, your master, and every one of your ancestors. You are not worthy of the food that you eat or the air that you breathe, let alone of my hard-won wisdom!’
At all this, the samurai puffed up with rage and appeared to double in size as he drew out his sword, swung it over his head, and brought it down onto the monk.
But just before being struck, the monk changed his tone and composure, and calmly said, ‘This is hell.’
The samurai dropped his sword. Filled with shame and remorse, he fell to his knees with a clatter of armour: ‘Thank you for risking your life simply to teach a stranger a lesson’ he said, his eyes wet with tears. ‘Please, if you could, forgive me for threatening you.’
Confidence derives from the Latin fidere, “to trust.” To be confident is to trust and have faith in the world. To be self-confident is to trust and have faith in oneself, and, in particular, in one’s ability to engage successfully or at least adequately with the world. A self-confident person is able to act on opportunities, take on new challenges, rise to difficult situations, engage with constructive criticism, and shoulder responsibility if and when things go wrong.
Self-confidence and self-esteem often go hand in hand, but they aren’t one and the same thing. In particular, it is possible to be highly self-confident and yet to have profoundly low self-esteem, as is the case, for example, with many performers and celebrities, who are able to play to studios and galleries but then struggle behind the scenes. Esteem derives from the Latin aestimare [to appraise, value, rate, weigh, estimate], and self-esteem is our cognitive and, above all, emotional appraisal of our own worth. More than that, it is the matrix through which we think, feel, and act, and reflects and determines our relation to our self, to others, and to the world.
People with healthy self-esteem do not need to prop themselves up with externals such as income, status, or notoriety, or lean on crutches such as alcohol, drugs, or sex (when these things are a crutch). On the contrary, they treat themselves with respect and look after their health, community, and environment. They are able to invest themselves completely in projects and people because they have no fear of failure or rejection. Of course, like everybody, they suffer hurt and disappointment, but their setbacks neither damage nor diminish them. Owing to their resilience, they are open to people and possibilities, tolerant of risk, quick to joy and delight, and accepting and forgiving of others and themselves.
So what’s the secret to self-esteem? As I argue in Heaven and Hell, a book on the psychology of the emotions, many people find it easier to build their self-confidence than their self-esteem, and, conflating one with the other, end up with a long list of talents and achievements. Rather than facing up to the real issues, they hide, often their whole life long, behind their certificates and prizes. But as anyone who has been to university knows, a long list of talents and achievements is no substitute for healthy self-esteem. While these people work on their list in the hope that it might one day be long enough, they try to fill the emptiness inside them with externals such as status, income, possessions, and so on. Undermine their standing, criticize their home or car, and observe in their reaction that it is them that you undermine and criticize.
Similarly, it is no use trying to pump up the self-esteem of children (and, increasingly, adults) with empty, undeserved praise. The children are unlikely to be fooled, but may instead be held back from the sort of endeavour by which real self-esteem can grow. And what sort of endeavour is that? Whenever we live up to our dreams and promises, we can feel ourselves growing. Whenever we fail but know that we have given it our best, we can feel ourselves growing. Whenever we stand up for our values and face the consequences, we can feel ourselves growing. This is what growth depends on. Growth depends on living up to our ideals, not our parents’ ambitions for us, or the targets of the company we work for, or anything else that is not truly our own but, instead, a betrayal of ourselves.
The circumstances in which we laugh are many and varied, but, deep down, we laugh for one (or sometimes several) of just seven reasons.
1. To feel better about ourselves. When looking for romance on dating sites and apps, we often ask for, or promise to offer, a good sense of humour (GSOH). Today, we tend to think of laughter as a good thing, but, historically, this has not always been the case. In particular, the Church looked upon laughter as a corrupting and subversive force, and for centuries, the monasteries forbade it. This notion that laughter can be less than virtuous finds an echo in the superiority theory of laughter, according to which laughter is a way of putting ourselves up by putting others down. The superiority theory is most closely linked with the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who conceived of laughter as “a sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” Think of medieval mobs jeering at people in stocks, or, in our time, Candid Camera.
2. To relieve stress and anxiety. Clearly, the superiority theory is unable to account for all cases of laughter, such as laughter arising from relief, surprise, or joy. According to the relief theory of laughter, most often associated with Sigmund Freud, laughter represents a release of pent-up nervous energy. Like dreams, jokes are able to bypass our inner censor, enabling a repressed emotion such as xenophobia (or, at least, the nervous energy associated with the repression) to surface—explaining why, at times, we can be embarrassed by our own laughter. By the same token, a comedian might raise a laugh by conjuring some costly emotion, such as admiration or indignation, and then suddenly killing it. Although more flexible than the superiority theory, the relief theory is unable to account for all cases of laughter, and those who laugh hardest at offensive jokes are not generally the most repressed of people.
3. To keep it real. Much more popular today is the incongruity theory of laughter, associated with the likes of Immanuel Kant and Søren Kierkegaard, according to which the comedian raises a laugh, not by conjuring an emotion and then killing it, but by creating an expectation and then contradicting it. Building upon Aristotle, Kierkegaard highlighted that the violation of an expectation is the core not only of comedy but also of tragedy—the difference being that, in tragedy, the violation leads to significant pain or harm. Possibly, it is not the incongruity itself that we enjoy, but the light that it sheds, in particular, on the difference between what lies inside and outside our heads. The incongruity theory is arguably more basic than the relief and superiority theories. When someone laughs, our inclination is to search for an incongruity; and though we may laugh for superiority or relief, even then, it helps if we can pin our laughter on some real or imagined incongruity.
4. As a social service. According to the philosopher Henri Bergson, we tend to fall into patterns and habits, to rigidify, to lose ourselves to ourselves—and laughter is how we point this out to one another, how we up our game as a social collective. For example, we may laugh at one who falls into a hole through absentmindedness, or at one who constantly repeats the same gesture or phrase. Conversely, we may also laugh at, or from, an unusual or unexpected lack of rigidity, as, for instance, when we break a habit or have an original idea. Ultimately, says Bergson, we are laughable to the extent that we are a machine or an object, to the extent that we lack self-awareness, that we are invisible to ourselves while being visible to everyone else. Thus, the laughter of others usually draws attention to our unconscious processes, to our modes or patterns of self-deception, and to the gap, or gulf, between our fiction and the reality. This gap is narrowest in poets and artists, who have to transcend themselves if they are to be worthy of the name.
5. To put others at ease. Another way of understanding laughter is to look at it like a biologist or anthropologist might. Human infants are able to laugh long before they can speak. Laughter involves parts of the brain that are, in evolutionary terms, much older than the language centres, and that we share with other animals. Primates, in particular, produce laughing sounds when playfighting, play-chasing, or tickling one another. As with human children, it seems that their laughter functions as a signal that the danger is not for real—which may be why rictus characters such as Batman’s Joker, who send a misleading signal, are so unsettling.
6. For diplomacy. Most laughter, even today, is not directed at jokes, but at creating and maintaining social bonds. Humour is a social lubricant, a signal of contentedness, acceptance, and belonging. More than that, it is a way of communicating, of making a point emphatically, or conveying a sensitive message without incurring the usual social costs. At the same time, humour can also be a weapon, a sublimed form of aggression, serving, like the stag’s antlers, to pull rank or attract a mate. The subtlety and ambiguity involved is in itself a source of almost endless stimulation.
7. To transcend ourselves. Laughter may have begun as a signal of play, but it has, as we have seen, evolved a number of other functions. Zen masters teach that it is much easier to laugh at ourselves once we have transcended our ego. At the highest level, laughter is the sound of the shattering of the ego. It is a means of gaining (and revealing) perspective, of rising beyond ourselves and our lives, of achieving a kind of immortality, a kind of divinity. Upon awakening on her deathbed to see her entire family around her, Nancy Astor quipped, “Am I dying, or is this my birthday?”
Today, laughter is able to give us a little of what religion once did.