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In 2015, the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu traveled to Dharamsala, India to celebrate His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s eightieth birthday. The two spiritual leaders and self-described “mischievous brothers” spent a week discussing a single burning question: how do we find joy in the face of suffering? Their conversations, jokes, and wisdom were compiled into The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, co-written by Douglas Abrams. Read an excerpt below and watch exclusive footage from their week in the documentary Mission Joy, available to stream until March 4 as a part of Tricycle’s monthly Film Club.

When a Dalai Lama and an Archbishop walk into a bar, you may not expect them to be the ones cracking the jokes. But having worked with many spiritual leaders, I’m tempted to see laughter and a sense of humor as a universal index of spiritual development. After spending a week with the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama, I can attest that these two leaders certainly topped that index as they skewered humbug, status, injustice, and evil, all with the power of humor. They and everyone around them were constantly guffawing, chortling, giggling, and belly laughing, as moments of great levity were spliced together with moments of profundity and sanctity. So often their first response to any subject, no matter how seemingly painful, was to laugh. 

It is clear that humor was central to their joyful way of being. But why? 

“I worked with a Mexican shaman once,” I told the Dalai Lama and Archbishop when I posed the question to them. “He said that laughing and crying are the same thing—laughing just feels better. It’s clear that laughter is central to the way that you are in the world. . . Can you tell us about the role of laughter and humor in the cultivation of joy?” 

“It is much better when there is not too much seriousness,” the Dalai Lama responded. “Laughter, joking is much better. Then we can be completely relaxed. I met some scientists in Japan, and they explained that wholehearted laughter—not artificial laughter—is very good for your heart and your health in general.” When he said “artificial laughter,” the Dalai Lama pretended to smile and forced a chuckle. He was making a connection between wholehearted laughter and a warm heart, which he had already said was the key to happiness. 

I once heard that laughter was the most direct line between any two people, and certainly the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop used humor to break down the social barriers that separate us. Humor, like humility, comes from the same root word for humanity: humus. The lowly and sustaining earth is the source for all three words. Is it any surprise that we have to have a sense of humility to be able to laugh at ourselves and that to laugh at ourselves reminds us of our shared humanity? 

“I think that the scientists are right,” the Dalai Lama concluded. “People who are always laughing have a sense of abandon and ease. They are less likely to have a heart attack than those people who are really serious and who have difficulty connecting with other people. Those serious people are in real danger.” 

“Archbishop,” I said, “humor can also be very cruel. But your humor, as I’ve seen over the years, is about bringing us together, not about separating us and putting anyone down—except maybe the Dalai Lama. But most of the time it’s about uniting. Can you two tell us a little bit about the ways in which humor can bring us together and show us our shared ridiculousness?” 

“Well, yes, if you are longing to bring people together, you’re not going to do so by being acerbic,” the Archbishop responded. “You know, it’s so good to see the ridiculous in us all, really. I think we then get to see our common humanity in many ways. 

“Ultimately, I think it’s about being able to laugh at yourself and being able not to take yourself so seriously. It’s not about the belittling humor that puts others down and yourself up. It’s about bringing people onto common ground. 

“If you can manage to downgrade yourself, if you are able to laugh at yourself and get others to laugh at you without feeling guilty that they are laughing at you. The humor that doesn’t demean is an invitation to everyone to join in the laughter. Even if they’re laughing at you they’re joining you in a laughter that feels wholesome.” 

“Life is hard, you know, and laughter is how we come to terms with all the ironies and cruelties and uncertainties that we face.”

“When you and the Dalai Lama tease each other,” I added, “it does not feel demeaning at all.” 

“Yes, the Dalai Lama and I tease each other, but it is a statement of trust in the relationship. It’s an indication that there’s enough of a reservoir of goodwill that you’re really saying, ‘I trust you. And you trust me that I know you will not undermine me or be offended by me.’ 

“I’m just thinking that we’re so very apt to belittle because we are also so unsure of ourselves and we think that the best way of asserting who we are is by putting you down, whereas this kind of humor says, ‘Come stand next to me and let’s laugh at me together, then we can laugh at you together.’ It does not belittle either of us but uplifts us, allows us to recognize and laugh about our shared humanity, about our shared vulnerabilities, our shared frailties. Life is hard, you know, and laughter is how we come to terms with all the ironies and cruelties and uncertainties that we face.” 

Scientific research on humor is rather limited, but it does seem that there is an evolutionary role for laughter and humor in managing the anxiety and stress of the unknown. Jokes are funny precisely because they break our expectations and help us to accept the unexpected. Other people are one of the greatest sources of uncertainty in our lives, so it is not surprising that much humor is used to manage and massage these encounters. The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama are masters of using humor to connect and join together when meeting others. 

“I don’t think I woke up and presto, I was funny,” the Archbishop added. “I think it is something that you can cultivate. Like anything else, it is a skill. Yes, it does help if you have the inclination, and especially if you can laugh at yourself, so learn to laugh at yourself. It’s really the easiest place to begin. It’s about humility. Laugh at yourself and don’t be so pompous and serious. If you start looking for the humor in life, you will find it. You will stop asking, Why me? and start recognizing that life happens to all of us. It makes everything easier, including your ability to accept others and accept all that life will bring.”

Adapted from The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams © 2016 by The Dalai Lama Trust, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Random House.

This article was originally published on February 26, 2022.

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