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Coronavirus: Laughing is allowed

Julia Vergin
March 23, 2020

It's an outbreak — it's serious. Coronavirus restricts us; it's highly contagious and it threatens lives and livelihoods. But is it too serious to laugh at? On the contrary. In difficult times, humor is important.

A boy laughing
Image: picture-alliance/Loop Images/M. Strider

Spring is finally here in the northern hemisphere. But we're stuck inside. Some of us can't work, or can only work to a limited extent. While many of us are now spending more time with family than we normally do, depending on how long this goes on for, the financial strain of staying home from work will likely become a major source of stress for many.

Those who work in supermarkets or nursing homes are exposed to a particularly high risk of infection. Others sit in their "home offices." Many have replaced teachers and childcare workers and are faced with trying to entertain their children 24/7. Some are completely alone.

And then there are those who have been infected with coronavirus. Who, sealed off from the outside world, have to fight not only the symptoms of the infection but also the fear. So can we really joke about the coronavirus?

Read more: Coronavirus scare: When will 'hamsterkauf' become an English word?

"Yes," says Kareen Seidler, research assistant and spokeswoman at the German Institute for Humor. "In general, you can joke about anything," she affirms.

Viktor E. Frankl, psychiatrist, neurologist and Holocaust survivor, once expressed a very similar opinion. In his book 'Nevertheless, say "yes" to life,' the late Austrian author details his experience as an inmate of several concentration camps during the Second World War — and about how humor can be vital for survival.

"Humor is also a weapon of the soul in the fight for self-preservation," Frankl says, describing the meaning of "camp humor," as he called it.

Finding humor in a situation that is, for the most part, anything but funny creates distance from the very situation.The joker rises, at least for a brief moment, above their reality instead of being completely overwhelmed by it. 

"Psycho-hygiene," Seidler calls it. It's healthy and normal to joke about a frightening situation, she says. Humor is often a form of release —  fear and stress are abated, even if sometimes only for a few seconds.

Of course, it's important to consider the sensitivities of the person you're joking with, Seidler cautions. "We distinguish between social and offensive humor," she explains. 

Read more: Why can't we tickle ourselves?

Jokes about hoarding pasta and toilet paper may not be the right thing to do in the presence of someone who is in a state of coronavirus-induced panic or who considers joking fundamentally inappropriate in such situations. Humor can, in this way, be insensitive. Empathy is essential here.

But being humorous does not necessarily mean that you have to make nasty jokes.

"Social humor doesn't hurt anyone," says Seidler. One example of social humor is the numerous instructions circulating online that show in an original and funny way how to wash your hands thoroughly. The Spanish police officers who serenade those in isolation while on duty also make use of this kind of humor. 

Read more: 10 traditional types of German jokes

Seidler says laughing together strengthens the sense of community. "If we already spend more time with the family than we would like, we should laugh together as much as possible," she says. Social media can serve as a source of inspiration here.

So the next time you find yourself laughing at a coronavirus-related joke and feel immediately plagued by remorse, think of people like Viktor Frankl. And remember that camp humor can be vital to our survival. 

Read more: You can actually train your "humor muscle"

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