Laughter lifts our spirits, puts our problems in perspective, connects us to others and probably improves our health. In his best-selling book Anatomy of an Illness, author Norman Cousins told how he rid himself of a serious illness with a treatment that included does of Candid Camera and old Marx Brothers movies. Some researchers believe a hearty laugh may release endorphins, the brain’s own pain-killing chemicals, and that it helps to strengthen the immune system.
Laughter provides a physical workout, too. William Fry, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School, compares laughter to jogging in terms of its effect on heart rate and muscle condition, although it would take a very funny series of events to keep you laughing as long and hard as the average jogger jogs.
Still, we don’t need science to tell us that laughing feels good, and most of us know we don’t laugh nearly enough. Although it’s hard to see the humor in everything, we can learn to take ourselves and our problems less seriously and maybe lengthen our lives at the same time. Here are some suggestions from the experts:
1. Remember that everyone can have a sense of humor. Maybe you can’t remember a joke or tell it well if you recall it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be amusing with friends. “We’re all born with the potential for developing a sense of humor,” says Dr. Fry. “It’s part of our genetic makeup. Even if most of your playful spirit has been hammered out of you by the time you’ve reached adulthood, it can be revived.”
“When you talk to people about humor, they usually think of jokes and comedy,” says C. W. Metcalf, president of a company in Fort Collins Colorado that trains business people in how to use humor. “But less than two percent of us are capable of remembering and telling jokes. Humor is much broader than that. It’s a set of skills that anyone can learn to develop. It’s a sense of perspective, of being able to look at things in an offbeat way; it’s a sense of joy in being alive.”
2. Don’t just sit there – participate. “Everybody is exposed to humor,” says Harvey Mindess, Ph.D., director of the graduate psychology program at Antioch University in Marina del Rey, California, “but we usually just sit back and enjoy it without thinking of how to make others laugh. Don’t settle for letting Robin Williams make all the jokes. Imagine yourself in the role of amusing other people. If I’m watching an episode of Family Guy or even the Simpsons, I might consider how that episode has played itself out in my family.”
Think about how you could turn an awkward incident into an entertaining story. If some minor disaster comes along, like a car breakdown on a rainy night, think of it as a situation comedy. You’ll be amazed at how quickly that puts things in perspective. And it may well make a funny story later.
3. Recognize what makes you laugh and put more of it in your life. Does your taste run to Laurel and Hardy? Bugs Bunny? Sunday funnies? Which TV sitcoms do you like? Which writers make your laugh? Once you’ve figured out what amuses you most, Dr. Fry suggests, start a humor library. Collect your favorite books, cartoons, DVDs, films and just funny gadgets. Then, when you’re having trouble seeing the bright side, head for your stash for a quick pick-me-up.
4. Practice injecting laughter into ‘serious’ situations. “We’re happy because we laugh, not the other way around,” says Annette Goodheart, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Santa Barbara, California. “The usual way of describing the process is that you have a sense of humor, so you laugh, and that changes your attitude. I start by laughing, which changes my attitude immediately. It’s easy to fake laughter – your diaphragm doesn’t distinguish between that and the real thing. It’s like starting a car engine. The physical motion triggers real laughter.”
If you’re having trouble seeing the humor in a situation, Goodheart says, describe it in a deliberately light way: “The IRS is auditing me, tee-hee.” The ridiculousness of that sentence tickles the funny bone, helping you to change the way you look at it.
You might try adopting the paradoxical approach. When you can’t seem to laugh about a problem, try the opposite. Tell yourself this is no laughing matter and nothing can make you laugh about it. Usually the harder we try not to laugh, the more irresistible the urge becomes.
Another technique is to carry your anxiety to its most ludicrous extreme; until the situation you imagine seems so ridiculous you can’t help but find it funny. Let’s say you’re agonizing over a mistake you make at work. Picture the entire company going bankrupt, with you and the chairman reduced to selling apples on the street corner, all because of your error. Chances are things aren’t really that bad, and the imaginary scene puts things in perspective.
“Humorists do this all the time – take upsetting events and talk about them with enough exaggeration that people find them funny,” says Hope Mihalap, a humorist and professional speaker from Norfolk, Virginia. “This morning, as I was going over my bills, it was clear that we had more bills than money to pay them. I began to get nervous and upset. So when my college-age daughter came in, I told her the problem and said ‘Next week when we start taking in washing, maybe you could get the laundry basket and go with me from door to door.’ She started to laugh, and I did too. Then I was able to sit down with the checkbook and know that I’d find a way to work this out.”
5. Avoid self-criticism by poking fun at your flaws. “When you get down on yourself,” explains Ray DiGiuseppe, director of training and research at New York’s Institute for Rationa-Emotive Therapy, “you become more depressed – and the more depressed you are, the harder it is to do something about your problem. But if you can laugh about your troubles, you’re more likely to think of a way to deal with them.”
DiGiuseppe and his wife have made a joke out of his tendency to work long hours. “When she wants to sit down and have a talk, I kid her that she’ll have to call my secretary to make an appointment. Making fun of my work holism reminds us I’m aware of the problem.
6. Use humor to lighten up your relationships. By easing tension, laughter can pave the way for better communication in almost any relationship, from home to the workplace. When Goodheart’s married clients face an angry impasse, for instance, she asks them to bring up a key word or phrase they’ve agreed upon beforehand about the situation that made them laugh.
“One couple remembered the day they made love outdoors – and the lawn chair folded up on them! They chose the words ‘lawn chair’ and agreed that whenever either one of them evoked that phrase, their argument would stop,” Goodheart says “It always made them laugh and broke the tension and helped them resolve the problem.”
Mihalap’s family adopts a foreign accent when touchy subjects arise. “My husband is Russian, my father is Greek, and I’m a Southerner,” she says. “So ever since our kids were small, we’ve found a lot of humor in the way people speak. If they are getting on each other’s nerves, they’ll start talking in a heavy Russian accent. Even if one of them knows there’s a reprimand there, it’s easier to take when it’s said in a funny way.”
Joking with someone around whom you’re usually serious can add a new dimension to the relation. “This is an assignment I give my students,” says Mindess. “I tell them to think about it beforehand, because it isn’t always appropriate. But the ones who try it report remarkable results. You can really break through to a new level of intimacy, openness and relaxation with another person this way.”
7. Rediscover silliness; rediscover toys. We can learn from children, who haven’t yet begun to censor their mirth. “I’m a firm believer in props – toys, posters, anything that makes us laugh,” says Allen Klein, a professional speaker on humor in San Francisco. “Everyone in my workshops gets a clown nose, and I tell them to keep props handy. When I’m in a traffic jam, I take out the jar of bubble soap I keep in the car, open the window and blow bubbles. Then I look around and see smiling faces, so I know I’m relieving other people’s stress, too.”
8. When you really can’t laugh, don’t force it. Sometimes nothing can help you see the bright side of a situation. When that happens, you may simply need to ride it out. You may have to get out your grief or your anger first, before you can begin to think about looking for the funny side. Laughter can help – but not all the time.
9. Don’t confuse humor with ridicule. It’s one thing to get people laughing; it’s another to laugh at them. Teasing uses laughter to control others, to disguise critical remarks and avoid responsibility for your true feelings. “Can’t you take a joke?” May be one of the most destructive questions in the language. “Often people who tease others have little insight into what they’re really doing,” says Quinton Wilkes, PH.D., a psychotherapist in New York City. “If you feel demeaned or under attack, tell the other person how you feel.” Anyone can laugh at another’s expense, but a true sense of humor is the ability to laugh at your own self.
10. Don’t think you have to be serious to be responsible. “Many people feel that being a responsible adult doesn’t go along with laughing at their self,” says Mindess. “They assume that to be funny degrades their dignity.” Laughing is risky – but it opens up new ways of looking at a world that’s full of fear and cynicism. And that openness and creativity are what we need most of all. “We’re facing an environment that’s changing between the time we go to bed and the time we get up in the morning,” says Metcalf. “The only way to cope with that is to pay attention to the things that make it worth being here. It’s easy to figure out what’s not working, but the problems of the world are going to be solved by the people who love it here.”
And what feeds that love better than laughter?
Bio/Byline: Janet Bailey of Brooklyn, New York, is a freelance writer on health and human behavior. Diane Williams of Atlanta, Georgia, is a senior labor management specialist, a freelance writer and photographer, and the mother of three girls, including fraternal twins.