• Shannon Sevigny, M.C., RP, CCC

This Is Your Brain On The Office: Humour, Pop Culture, and Well-Being

Bears. Beets. Binging Netflix. Why humour and pop culture are a large part of my personal wellness plan.

Image: The Office (2005)

I have always been a lover of media, comedy, and pop culture. I am a child of the 90s, and watching Simpsons reruns with my brother was a bonding activity. Quoting Anchorman during University in the mid-2000s was how we all connected (and fooled ourselves into thinking we were cool). Being part of an Arrested Development Facebook group is now an essential part of my self-care. And everyone knows I am the biggest Seinfeld fan. I am surrounded in my apartment with everything from a Princess Bride version of Monopoly, a mini Rick and Morty calendar, and of course little things from The Office. Almost every weekend I have an 80s movie marathon. While pop culture has always been a part of my personality, incorporating it into my daily life has become a deliberate activity. Humour and pop culture are integral to my wellness.

Since starting work in the mental health field, I have tried to include lighter and escapist entertainment into my evening wind-down routine. Every day I hear heartbreaking stories of trauma, mental illness, betrayal, rejection, and abuse. As therapists, we talk about the importance of emotional detachment and not bringing our work home with us. This is much easier said than done, and needs to be an active intention.

I need to balance out the stories I am consuming, or I will be oversaturated with reminders of the worst parts of humanity and existence. It is imperative for me to seek out stories that are humorous, silly, delightful, or even just benign.

Anytime you can expose yourself to depictions of tolerance and goodness and heart and warmth, you should do that. I think this may be one of many reasons why Schitt’s Creek was particularly so popular this past year. The soul of that show was exactly what we all needed.

I also like to seek out silliness and playfulness. I think these are really underrated qualities and modes of being. These are parts of ourselves that are often stifled as we get older. Or what life can rob of us experiencing. I’ve had periods of my life where I have felt numb, and unable to feel joy or pleasure. As someone known for her laugh and sense of humour, it’s felt like I’ve lost a part of myself and what makes life magical. Now that I no longer experience clinical depression, embracing silliness and laughing as often as possible is a part of my value system. I won’t be putting up a “Live. Laugh. Love” sign anytime soon, but the sentiment rings true.

One of the ways I cope with difficult situations is through humour.

Humour involves the ability to see something from a different perspective, a psychological flexibility that can be advantageous.

A timely meme about chronic illness is what gets me through having Crohn’s disease, and my dark sense of humour has helped with detachment this past year. We might actually be more inclined to laugh and feel a certain level of release laughing at those things that stress us out. I try to inject humour into my day, even in a small way, every single day. I try to expose myself to as many opportunities to smile and laugh as possible. I’ve taken advantage of awful (and yet guaranteed to make me smile) Dad joke accounts on Twitter, meme pages on Instagram, comedians and dog videos on TikTok, and I always end my day browsing Buzzfeed for the most ridiculous quizzes. There is usually also a Seinfeld, Friends, or episode from The Office on in the background. Honestly, I’m usually giggling at least 20 times a day at something or another.

With everything we have and are continuing to be exposed to in the news this year, and our personal lives, there’s become a heightened and urgent need for this shift in attention. Our brains were not designed for us to be constantly bombarded with threat. Our body was not built for our stress (fight/flight) response to be constantly activated.

One objective of turning on The Office is to turn off that part of our nervous system.

I am NOT saying that all you need is a good laugh. What I am highlighting is the psychological benefit that moments of laughter can have on our well-being.

Laughter can be cathartic, which we’ve needed this year. Laughing can shift arousal levels and it can help release overall tension, associated with holding in other emotions. It feels good to laugh, because laughing releases endorphins. It also stimulates circulation and aids in muscle relaxation. Laughing reduces catecholamine, a neurotransmitter released by the adrenal glands when we are stressed. It also reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Chronic stress and activation of the stress response is hard on our body, and suppresses the immune system. Anything we can do to reduce this can in turn re-regulate this system. Laughing can increase blood flow and oxygenation in the blood, which further assists in healing. It also involves the use of muscles in our abdomen, face, back, arms, and respiratory system. It’s kind of nice when our face hurts from smiling so much or our abs are sore from laughing so hard.

Different parts of our brain are activated when we see or hear something funny. First, there is an intellectual analysis, the understanding of the joke. This involves parts of the right hemisphere of the cortex, the frontal lobe, and other parts of the brain involved in social emotional responses. The amygdala and hippocampus are involved, as well as parts of the thalamus. These connections are also involved in friendship, love and affection, and the expression of mood. The hypothalamus contributes to that beautiful, loud, uncontrollable laughter. The sound of mine of which my friend in High School so lovingly referred to as a “shopping cart with a squeaky wheel.” This is still what I sound like every time Jim sends Dwight faxes from himself, from the future.

Laughter is the physiological response to humour, but it’s not the only reaction. Something can be funny and you can acknowledge this intellectually without any sort of smile or laugh. Other times you do smirk or giggle or laugh so loud and hard that you are wheezing, tearing up, and falling backward. Aren’t those some of the best moments in life?

What often amplifies this joy is sharing these moments with others. Laughing and sharing jokes together can strengthen our connections and promote social bonding.

A well-timed joke can be a social lubricant. As Michael explains to Jim about his jokes: “I just say these things to lighten the tension.” This fits with what is thought to be the evolutionary benefit of laughter, an indicator of a shared relief at the passing of danger, and an internal signal to deactivate the aforementioned fight/flight response. We need this when we are experiencing a lot of external stressors.

Even watching television or movies alone can actually make us feel less lonely. We can still feel connected to humanity.

We observe storylines that validate our own experience. When I watch The Office, my frustrations with office politics, coworkers, and relationships feel very seen.

Seinfeld gets much of its humour from the relatable observations of the “excruciating minutia of every single daily event.” We also can increase our empathy, understanding, and awareness of experiences we may otherwise not be exposed to. Additionally, for me, a greatly executed plotline and joke, like in Curb Your Enthusiasm or New Girl, also makes me smile. I find myself marveling at the cleverness of the writers and am reminded of some of the greatest strengths and unique aspects of being human, including creativity, artistic expression, and working together to produce something that brings people so much joy.

It is also fun to just participate in pop culture. It’s like sharing inside jokes with millions of people. Quoting Brooklyn 99 or Airplane! gives us a shared language, and an accessible way to communicate. Memorabilia, pop culture items, and fandoms are also enjoyable. It’s comforting to be part of a shared subculture like that. It might seem strange how some people get so attached to a Marvel storyline, to a character or story that doesn’t exist. But do they really not exist? The brain doesn’t know this. My experience of these raw emotions when I watch This Is Us (crying every damn episode) is the same as when I experience loss or pain in real life. My heart always swells when Jim tells Pam: “It’s a date.” This inner connection to our own emotions and outer connection to others is particularly important this year, when we may be feeling emotionally hardened and socially isolated.

And with re-watching a show, it feels like we are returning to an old friend. There is a comfort and familiarity. We when are stressed, the increased cognitive load makes it harder to focus on and absorb new information.

We often just end up watching a movie or series we’ve seen before like The Office because there is less emotional and cerebral investment.

We return to what we can have on in the background, that we know will make us feel and not feel certain things.

I think we’ve all hated so much about the things that 2020 chose to be. As we move forward into a year that may not look as different as we’d hoped, and as life will continue to always present us with personal challenges, continue to tune into what brings you joy and moments of healthy and much-needed laughter.

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