In December of last year, comedian-turned-U.S. senator Al Franken made an astute observation in The New York Times Magazine about then president-elect Donald Trump: He doesn’t ever laugh.
Trump’s curious absence of public mirth has caught the attention of other notables too, most recently a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama who remarked that his inability to deliver “gracious one-liners” has left him “ill at ease in front of all but the most adoring audiences.”
That’s not to say Trump hasn’t charmed audiences in other ways. He has elicited laughter, but often at the expense of others. That has provided additional fodder for commentators, remarking on the irony of a president who remains solemn in the public arena with no ability to laugh at himself, yet has a trademark penchant for mocking others.
All Trump psychoanalysis aside, there is something lost with the absence of laughter for those in the public eye. And a commander in chief who rarely laughs has given us new insight into the critical role humor plays in cultivating positive bonds and boosting well-being—or at least what we lose without it.
A sense of humor and a bit of self-deprecation is important for high-profile figures not simply as a tool for comic relief, but as a way to survive moments of anxiety or embarrassment, to engender goodwill among reluctant audiences, and to strengthen bonds with supportive ones.
Humor can be a unifying force to help disarm an “enemy” audience with its guard up for political or personal reasons, or over reservations about a company brand. It can be a way to rise above a partisan divide, demonstrate an ability to step outside a situation to view it objectively, and find a way to connect to detractors. A joke can provide common ground with “the unconverted” who might find a message unpalatable. Acknowledging a vulnerability in a moment of witty self-deprecation can also help people relate to a public figure on a personal level.
According to Psychology Today, humor seems to help us cope with stress and adversity, soften the grieving process, and ease potentially awkward interactions, while laughter has been shown to have certain physical benefits involving circulation, the lungs and muscles. And funny people also become recipients of positive attention and admiration.
Laughing at yourself can help ease an embarrassing moment, as demonstrated once by actress Jennifer Lawrence who tripped on the way up to receive a Oscar for Best Actress, saying during her speech, “You guys are just standing up because I fell and it’s embarrassing, but thank you.” Of course there are ways to step over the line too, as evidenced possibly by Virgin Atlantic’s recent response to a suspected “mile-high club” incident, attempting to poke fun at a couple caught emerging from an airplane bathroom.
Trump, for his part, almost gives the impression that laughing would somehow weaken his contempt for the distasteful issue du jour or undermine the severity of his tone. But a consistently stern countenance will actually do little more than solidify an image of someone who lacks emotional diversity and self-awareness, as will a compulsive resting face of disapproval. There seems to be a direct correlation between Trump’s lack of humor and the humor comedians see in him—the less funny he is, the more humorous they find him.
The best thing to do? Remember to take things in stride, inject some much needed levity into heavy situations, and avoid always taking yourself so seriously. Humor is a powerful way to capture an audience. Our focus is frequently on hearts and minds, but we shouldn’t forget that the belly has its place too.