The Tribune - Spectrum

, September 29, 2002
Lead Article

Humour is the salt of life
R. C. Sharma

Give me a sense of humour, Lord,

Give me the grace to see a joke

To get some pleasure out of life

And pass it on to the other folk.

— J. Maurus

Illustration by Sandeep JoshiIT has been generally seen that by temperament some persons are humorous while others are serious. To be able to make a joke, or take a joke, is a peculiar faculty of the mind that everybody does not possess. Some people are excessively serious. It is their nature to be so. Others are, by nature, frivolous though it is not the same thing as being humorous. Humour is a faculty of the intellect. The puritan is a type of serious man — you may expect no mercy from him. The comedian, on the other hand, is a type of humorous man — he will not only laugh at himself but make others laugh too.

In Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, Antonio has been presented as the picture of a puritan: serious, earnest, glum and shy of gaiety, whereas another character, Gratiano, is the frivolous chatterbox. He is a joker who makes everybody laugh and feel easy. Similarly, Shylock is a puritan but Bassanio is a humorist.

Among historical figures, Mahatma Gandhi, otherwise a serious man, possessed a subtle sense of humour. The only person who did not understand or appreciate humour was Hitler of Germany.

But the important question is: do we benefit more by being humorous or by being serious?

A psychologist will view the question impartially. He will ask: "Is man by nature humorous?" Are animals humorous?" "Does humour have anything to do with human physiology or the nervous system?" Who are the persons who usually make a joke or take a joke?

It has been generally observed that jesting comes easily to those who are not burdened with immediate or serious responsibilities of life. Grave and serious duties make a man grave and silent. When a person has no grave responsibilities to shoulder, it is only then that he can think of jesting or relaxing. So, humour-making is in a sense born out of the mood of relaxation.

It has been well said that good humour is the salt of life. As you know, salt should be sprinkled proportionately over a dish to make it tasteful. "Good humour may be defined as a habit of being pleased; a constant and perennial softness of manner; easiness of approach, and serenity of disposition...Good humour is a state between gaiety and unconcern; the act or emanation of a mind at leisure to regard the gratification of another," according to Dr Johnson.


Those who have read the plays of George Bernard Shaw know fully well how humour can be turned into a useful machine. Through jokes and jesting, Shaw preached a number of moral ideas. How humorously he defended his theory of jokes when he said that a man could safely say in jest what he could not say in earnest; which means that you always are at liberty to point out a serious mistake, social or individual, by referring to it in a playful manner. But were you to point it out seriously, you might as well end up landing in jail. This is how he criticised the whole British Constitution in his enjoyable comedy: The Apple Cart.

True humour, as French writer Anatole France maintains, is never boisterous. It is often expressed in a smile rather than in loud laughter. The best way to cultivate humour is to closely study some of the world’s great humorists like Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dickens, R. L. Stevenson or P. G. Wodehouse.

"Humorists have a knack of making themselves felt even in the dark", says Rabindranath Tagore. A true sense of humour is a great asset. It enables a person to see the inconsistent side of life. Humour should not be mistaken for a joker’s jests. Humour is both the rational understanding and rational enjoyment of life. For life, after all, is great fun. So, let us enrich our lives with humour.