How to be happy

Diane Spencer's picked up some tips for comedians

I’ve just been reading The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, an analysis of Eastern and Western religious ideas, ancient wisdom and modern philosophies which seeks to find ways to make our lives happier. His conclusions could easily be applied to those working as stand-ups.

As comics, our work and the rest of our lives are heavily intertwined, more so than perhaps any other profession. A comedian is rarely on ‘down time’ unless it is self-imposed, and even then when something funny happens, you’re immediately reaching for a pen. It is crucial therefore, that a comedian is happy in being a comedian, as this is so all-enveloping.

Haidt surmised that we have both an unconscious, instinctual, emotional mind as well s conscious logical feelings. He used the metaphor of an elephant and a rider, if you can’t guess which is which, start mashing your head against the keyboard, and see which one drops out first.

The unruly emotive side of the brain is more likely to point out negative experiences to the conscious mind, which is how we learn: when you do something bad you remember so you don’t kick a coyote in the nuts again and have the other half of your face ripped off.

Understandably, this means you may believe things are worse than they are, as it takes six compliments to scrub out an insult and at least 17 friends to blot out one bad review.

In order to train our elephants, many people focus purely on the psychological aspects using Prozac or cognitive therapy to adjust the mind. However Haidt suggests that there are three levels which must be equally addressed: the physical (as in our physical brains and the chemicals they swim in), the psychological, and the socio-cultural.

A comedian heavily feels the physical: the brain is in overdrive and the entire body is brought to account; that nervous tension, the pre-gig dump, the sweats, the shakes, the adrenaline, the aggression. I’m appropriating the psychological to be our frame of mind on the day, the security of our set lists, our habits, our nervous tics, and those good luck rituals. The socio-cultural extends from our position on the bill and whether the gig has any professional clout, how we can interact with the audience, loved ones, new acquaintances and industry insiders.

The physical brain is affected like any other body part. Haidt concludes that everyone has a personal default level of happiness and it’s down to the ‘cortical lottery’ whether you pop out a generally happy person, or a miserable bastard. On top of this you can pile common sense: eating healthily, doing a cryptic crossword and not catching beer bottles with your forehead will generally lead to a healthy brain.

The psychological and socio-cultural are apparently affected by your approach to your work. Haidt touched upon the concepts of doing ‘good’ and doing ‘well’; he posited that when these fields marry up, happiness is achieved.

He spoke of journalists who felt that despite huge pay packets that they had sold out, losing their souls to tabloid junk production, in contrast to geneticists with similar pay packets who felt they were striving to enhance mankind and therefore had a much more higher level of satisfaction and happiness at work.

Sometimes you have to take the gigs you don’t necessarily enjoy in order to pay for the simple things in life. But many comedians are immensely lucky to already have that perception that stand-up is a calling. They will work hard, for a long time, for comparatively little pay for the magic of creating something funny – that’s the first and last thing on your mind. You know when a comedian, or promoter cares about what they do and takes a great sense of pride in their work, but that is stopping at merely the psychological.

Rituals and rites of passage are crucial within society and religious organisations, but there are no bar mitzvahs for comedians. There is cause for celebration when a comedian does their first paid 20-minute slot, then their first headline gig and dare I say, their debut solo show at Edinburgh, but these are generally private in nature, and sometimes our lack of a clearly established journey with identifiable milestones can cause feelings of isolation and despair in the less experienced.

Too often someone who has barely been in the game six months will cry out about a lack of pay, the lack of open-spot opportunities, the traveling etc and the more kindly experienced comedians will quietly point out it is the journey for all to tread. Our profession appears to have this repetitive loop of frustration, realisation and nostalgia precisely because it is a creative, and on some levels, extremely accessible way of life.

Sometimes it is easy to feel despondent when, for example, the gig goes badly, nothing seems to fly, the venue has a sticky floor and punters who can’t spell ‘laugh’ without using an ‘f’.

The key to lifting yourself beyond the downward drag of your elephant, is to train yourself to look beyond the immediate: placing this gig within the context of your day, then within the context of your career, then within the context of your development as a stand-up, and the evolution of comedy as a whole. We simply have the privilege of being part of our industry at our time.

You are one part of an ever-changing fluid society. You have always had an idea of what comedy is, but it had to come from somewhere, unless you genuinely giggled with an understanding of your actions as you first looked into your mother’s eyes and simultaneously shat yourself. Becoming aware of how you came to interpret what stand-up actually means is crucial to deciding how you want to move forward.

Haidt’s book is neatly comprehensive and never delves too far into the modern understanding of the brain, nor the anthropological origins of the ancient wisdoms. The Happiness Hypothesis is an accesible read, which not only makes the reader feel smarter, but I found genuinely contributes to my level of happiness and understanding of it.

  • The Happiness Hypothesis is available from Amazon here. Diana Spencer is performing Lost In The Mouth Specific at 4pm in Opium, part of the PBH Free Fringe. Her website is

Published: 25 Jul 2010

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