"Puerile". That's how one of my best friends recently described my sense of humour. I like to think I'm a bit more sophisticated than that, but on reflection, no – it's a fair cop. I have a remote controlled fart machine which has probably used up more batteries than any other gadget in my house. And when I found a fake dog turd in my bedside table the other day I thought a) how funny and b) "I was wondering where I'd put that."
Puerile or otherwise, humour has always been important to me. I subscribe to Charlie Chaplin's view that "a day without laughter is a day wasted", which is why it's such a tragedy that we are, apparently, going through a 'laughter recession'. According to a 2012 survey, the 2010s rank as the least fun decade in the past 60 years. (As a journalist I love statistics almost as much as I love laughing. I've been told my tombstone will read, 'A study says…' Most likely 'A study says I had a 1 in 250,000,000 chance of being killed by that falling coconut' or suchlike.)
The average adult now laughs just 7.2 times per day, which is actually half the amount adults are said to laugh (15 times, apparently). So that means during our waking hours we laugh around once an hour at best and once every couple of hours at worst. Kids manage up to 400 times per day. Psychologist Anjula Mutanda calls the statistics "shocking" and I couldn't agree more. "What an absolute tragedy! That will never be me!" I declared when I read about our endemic seriousness. But sadly, at times, it already is. Whilst others may cite lack of money (55 per cent) or work pressures (30 per cent) as the cause of their evaporating humour, I'm personally pointing the finger at mental health.
The fact is, I know when I'm starting to feel unwell because I begin to lose my sense of humour, both my appreciation of funny things and my capacity to be (apparently) amusing. I think it's been the case for years, dating back to before I knew I had depression (and, later, bipolar). Back then I was as perplexed by my disappearing humour as others. An ex-partner once said, "I never know where I stand. One day you find something funny, the next day you don't." This must have been puzzling and irritating – like revising for an English exam only to be told, as you turn the paper over, that it's been changed to French.
But whilst I can see how frustrating this must have been, back then I couldn't seem to remedy it. Now I know it's because I wasn't well. (Dr Nick Stafford, consultant psychiatrist specialising in bipolar and depression says this humour loss is "probably a dimension of 'anhedonia'" – an inability to enjoy the things you usually enjoy, experienced during depression).
So, now I've got a proper diagnosis, I can see how humour relates to my illness and wellness. Humour loss is symptomatic of my impending depression and a bellwether of my declining wellness. In the past, I had no clue that humour (or lack thereof) was giving me one of my biggest clues to a fast approaching depressive 'dip' and therefore I had little chance of remedying it. Now, when I start to think, 'Not funny', in relation to things that would normally have me snorting with laughter I know it means I'm beginning to 'wobble'. Conversely, when I start to quip in excess and find the world 4-D funny, like I'm part of some hilarious in-joke, I know this could be the start of a wobble but in an upwards, hypomanic direction.
Either way, I know it's time to hunker down and look after myself in order to get my humour (and my mental health) back on track. Nine hours plus of undisturbed sleep for three nights in a row can pretty much transform me. But actually, one of the best ways to restore my humour balance as I teeter on the brink of the doldrums is watching a well-worn path of familiar funny TV scenes. When my humour is wavering, watching new comedy is a bit too challenging and perhaps too much of a risk – what if I fail to find it funny enough and end up even more depressed? And so I return to the familiar stuff, like 'The Office', 'The Vicar of Dibley' or 'Miranda', and in it I find a miracle salve.
It's as if when I'm watching these scenes I could recite verbatim, I'm reminded of the fact that I've laughed at them a million times before and therefore, by default, I can do so again, even if I'm down. This familiar comedy reconnects me to my intrinsic love of humour and shines as a ray of hope amidst the hopelessness of depression. When I'm feeling this way, I feel like the mental health equivalent of an octogenarian who finds their greatest happiness in listening to Vera Lynn CDs over and over again. But that's fine – it works, for them and it works for me.
In 1967, Canadian neuroscientist Graham Goddard noticed that laboratory rats had epileptic seizures in response to triggers and continued to do so even if only a small trigger was introduced. Goddard called this response to even a small trigger 'kindling'. In psychiatry, the 'kindling' is effectively stressful life events, the suggestion being that lots of little and seemingly insignificant stresses can, for example, lead to depression just as much as one big one. And not just that but the kindling theory suggests that eventually the episodes may occur spontaneously and without a trigger, and you'll find yourself heading along a well-worn pathway before you even realise it.
In my mind's eye, I imagine my neural pathway from illness to wellness like an actual pathway running along the edge of a cornfield, the vegetation flattened by hoards of walkers and animals who, over time, create a well-defined and easy route. My depression pathway has, over the years, become so strong I ponder as to whether it could be seen from space, like the Great Wall of China.
But just as a real path runs both ways, a path both to and from somewhere, so I feel could be the case with the depression pathway. Tricky life events might lead down a pathway to depression but I wonder, could it also be the case that positive ones might lead back towards wellness?
I asked Dr Stafford, who is also vice-president of Bipolar UK, what he thought about this and he told me: "On the issue of neural pathways I strongly believe in your idea of rekindling these with behavioural therapies. This applies to many areas of treatment, indeed anything that involves activity and the promotion of activity. Others find more passive activities distracting such as video games and watching films a relief to their mental state, humour is obviously one of them."
Humour is most definitely mine. By watching old comedy, reliable comedy, comedy where I know the jokes and feel the warmth and security of their familiarity, I wonder if I'm helping to spark off a kindling effect in the opposite direction – back towards humour and away from dark thoughts. This 'humour convalescence' starts with TV and gets rolled out to the rest of my life, and before I know it I'm finding other things in life funny, too. Perhaps I am – as Dr Stafford suggests can happen – rekindling these neural pathways in my own way without even knowing it.
As such, I'm starting to see those 'sofa diving' moments in a different way, not as moments of weakness as I probably used to but an opportunity to usher myself back towards normality. As I sit under a blanket watching 'Friends' (Joey trying to speak French still does it for me), I feel my humour replenishing and the world is well once more. Which reminds me – did you hear the one about the mathematician with constipation who worked it out with a pencil? There we go. I guess I'm on the mend again…
Martha Roberts is an award-winning UK health writer and a mental health blogger at www.mentalhealthwise.com. She started the blog because of her own experiences of dealing with mental health issues (bipolar and depression, amongst other things).
Pictured below: Martha Roberts