How many times within the past week have you heard someone say something along the lines of “I’d rather get the coronavirus than miss the opportunity to walk at graduation, take an online midterm or move back home?” How many times within the past week have you said those things? What about “I hope I die from COVID-19?” How many times have you watched a TikTok video in which someone looks at the camera and says, “I’m not saying I want the coronavirus … but imagine how much attention I’d get if I were to get it?” Or one that says, “Flights are so cheap right now, I’m going to take a vacation, but I could die,” as if dying from the coronavirus could be both something bad and good?
These are just examples of how people our age so often use dark humor as a coping mechanism. This includes humor surrounding death, wars, generally traumatic experiences, the occasional pandemic and more personal issues such as self-harm, body dysmorphia, suicidal thoughts, actions or attempts. The things older individuals would cry about, discuss in only the most serious manner or refuse to discuss at all, we laugh about. We take any opportunity to make a joke about something because that’s the way we have learned to cope with what upsets us.
It’s been suggested that, rather intuitively, the ease and effectiveness of coping in “conventional” ways like deep breathing, meditating and yoga may increase at a later age. Fredda Blanchard-Fields, former chair of Georgia Tech’s School of Psychology, notes that “the costs of emotion regulation vary across age groups,” adding that “older adults are so efficient at dealing with their emotions that it doesn’t cost them any decrease in performance.” This essentially means that it takes more for us younger people to regulate our emotions and that older adults don’t expend as much energy when they’re looking for silver linings.
“Our” way of going about hard things can be problematic for a number of reasons. Ultimately, it makes it harder for people who don’t cope this way to talk to us. It becomes so natural for us to brush things off that we can often struggle to come to terms with certain realities. We find comedy in such awful things that we forget that they’re awful and not just humorous content. That’s not to say we all use humor that offends others, rather that many of us tend to use humor that makes light about various “heavier” situations so we can begin to mentally and emotionally process them indirectly.
Maybe the root of this lies in our inability to deal with that which does not come immediately to us. Many of us seek immediate forms of relief, comic relief being a widely used method of finding it. At the end of the day, it comes down to two schools of thought: “Time heals all wounds,” advice which many older individuals would give us, or “laughter is the best medicine,” to which many of us subscribe in a possibly inadvertent way.
This begs the question: Do we need to do anything differently? David Shultz, a science journalist, points to the work of Peter McGraw, a professor of psychology and marketing at University of Colorado Boulder, for an answer. McGraw states that when it comes to making dark humor “okay,” we look for one main thing in order to laugh. Most of us are only able to laugh if there is psychological distance. Psychological distance can take the form of time passing, where we get the phrase “too soon” if sufficient time is not taken. When broken down, this means you can’t joke about a horrific event to the people who felt it the most right after it happened. Maybe you can make the joke if you and the audience are far away from where the event occurred. You might be able to get away with it if you and your audience are disconnected from the tragedy. Lastly, it might be okay if you and your audience are socially far removed from the situation. It can’t be your family member, friend or colleague who experienced said tragedy, but if it has nothing to do with you or your audience, it might just be okay. So ultimately, Shultz says, if you are going to continue to make these jokes, keep psychological distance in mind. In layman’s terms: Read the room!
Although I agree with Shultz’s point of view regarding our use of dark humor, I can’t help but ask: Are we perpetuating a type of behavior that enables us to suppress our emotions and merely laugh at that which upsets us? We’re supposed to be the generation that speaks up. Bottling things up was meant to be left in the past. Being just a few months old when 9/11 occurred, growing into a young adult when the #MeToo movement emerged and going to high school during a spike in school shooting incidents, I found there was much trauma my American cohort experienced.
Maybe we use dark humor to create a bridge between one another. We can connect with one another without having to get too serious. We get the chance to begin to unpack what upsets us without always having to swallow our pride and admit it upsets us. There is simply no other way for us to cope with our hysteria and stress than to make light of it. It’s the only way for our generation to make sense of our surroundings when the sky feels like it’s falling down on us.
Ariel Wajnrajch is a freshman majoring in psychology.