It's Saturday night and my next-door neighbours are having a party. They've spilled out into their garden and they are having a good laugh. The laugh is purposeful, thematically rich, almost sorrowful in places. It's a highly accomplished laugh. And even though the laugh is annoying, because I'd like to go to sleep or at least be invited to the party so that I could judge for myself just how funny this situation actually is — I also envy the laugh, because it feels like a long time since I've had a really good one. My envy turns to bitterness. Not only do these people have a nice big garden in which to laugh, they're also hogging all the laughs.
For the last few months I've been searching for laughs, staying alert at all times, like a snake wrangler in a backyard on the edge of a desert. Sometimes I think I've found a good laugh but by the time I get to it, it's already been taken. Tonight I'd planned to go to a stand-up gig, but when it was time to go out I'd used so much energy building myself up to be around lots of laughing people that I was exhausted. I stayed in my unfunny home in my unfunny dressing gown. As I write this I'm listening to the soundtrack to Moon — a film about a man experiencing a personal crisis after three years living alone on the moon. Like many people I am my own worst enemy when it comes to having a good time. Welcome to my column, anyway.
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Aside from self-sabotage, there's a simple reason why good laughs have become scarce, like those seagulls with red bills you used to see everywhere. The state of events isn't very conducive to them. It's become a cliche to say it, but the news really is a never-ending dark festival. Many of us are tired and worried and have sore stomachs. The capacity to laugh is one of the first things to go when you're just trying to put one foot in front of the other. At the same time, the pile of stuff devoted to making us laugh is unthinkably massive. I can say to myself, "I must have a laugh immediately" and next thing I'll be watching Elton John being swallowed up by a folding chair at a tennis match, over and over, or listening to Louis Theroux singing "Yes Sir, I Can Boogie" in falsetto. There's a difference, though, between laughing your head off at the internet and being able to laugh at the collapsing fold-up chairs of your own life. Laughing at yourself can bring back perspective and humility when you feel you've lost control; it can help you to be a little more forgiving.
What I'm finding recently is, while I'm laughing a reasonable amount, many of the laughs aren't optimal. They are the lesser kinds: the ones meant to smooth uncertainty or soothe others' feelings. Humans are the only animals known to laugh this sort of laugh (chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins and rats also laugh, but only when they're actually having fun). If someone asks me if I have weekend plans, I laugh. If someone on the bus body-slams me with their backpack, I laugh. I was once cycling up a hill when a car shot out of the driveway and swept me sideways. My shoe and sock came off and flew into the middle of the road like a sad party popper. I wasn't badly hurt, and as soon as the driver stopped and some passersby came over, I laughed. I didn't want the driver to feel bad or anyone to worry. Also, I was suddenly embarrassed about having only one shoe on. My laughter addressed multiple awkwardnesses, but it was hollow laughter, laughter in a helmet, like Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
Perhaps aiming to laugh more is like aiming to "think positive" — destined to backfire, because it's impossible to directly alter your own emotions. My hope for this year, though, is for slightly better laughs. This may mean going out into the world more often, rather than seething into the darkness with earplugs in, both figuratively and literally. Soon. Just not right now.
Ashleigh Young's column will run every fortnight. Next week: Steve Braunias.