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HumorTHE LIGHTER PATH TO RESILIENCE AND HEALTH
By Paul McGhee
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Paul McGhee, PhD
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHumor and Resilience
"If it weren't for the brief respite we give the world with our foolishness, the world would see mass suicide in numbers that compare favorably with the death rate of the lemmings." (Groucho Marx)
"If I had no sense of humor, I should long ago have committed suicide." (Mohandas K. Gandhi)
If you randomly select 100 people on the street and ask them if it's important to have a good sense of humor, most will say yes without hesitation. They would recognize that humor helps get through the tough times ("If I didn't laugh, I'd cry!"). But what appears to be an obviously important set of skills for getting through our daily life has not always been considered important enough for researchers to study in a "serious" fashion. As noted in Chapter 2, it was not until the 1980s that psychologists and others began to systematically look at the ways in which humor contributes to both physical and emotional health and well being.
Imagine for a moment that you are an alien from another planet (perhaps you are a logic-oriented Vulcan, like Spock in the old television series, Star Trek). You arrive on Earth and observe a most bizarre behavior in humans. They see or say something incongruous or otherwise unusual/unexpected and then go through a puzzling sequence of behaviors. Major facial muscles contract and pull upward and to the side (producing what they call a "smile"), their mouth opens up and their diaphragm and stomach muscles start a series of contractions which produce a strange repetitive sound-a kind of "ha-ha-ha-ha-ha" that sometimes goes on and on to the point where they have trouble standing up. Their body seems to be out of control with involuntary spasms. Sometimes they hold their sides when they've been doing this for several minutes. Surely, it must be very painful ... and yet they look so happy. But many of them do have tears coming out of their eyes, so they must be very sad when they do this.
You continue to watch more closely, and you notice that they seem to be gasping for air. This odd breathing pattern causes them to push out as much air as possible from their lungs before taking a deep breath and starting the whole process all over again. You discover that their heart is also racing and their blood pressure jumps much higher. Their faces are pinker because of the increased blood flow to their cheeks. Many of them slump over in their chairs; or if they're standing up, it looks like they're about to fall over. In fact, you notice that the young humans really do fall down on the floor while they're doing this ... they can't stand up! Some are rolling on the floor. Again, it all looks so painful, and yet they look so happy.
When the humans explain that this is called laughter, and that they can't help themselves, you become all the more concerned about its impact on their well being. They finally explain why they're laughing and you become all the more puzzled. They laugh at things that are just absurd and make no sense. As an alien who does not have the strong drive to play (physically or mentally) as part of your biological heritage, you never manage to understand either humor or laughter, no matter how often humans explain it. And you would never be convinced that this strange behavior might be good for you or help you cope with stressful times.
Even if you are someone who has always been pretty serious in your adult life, you are certain to have more insight into the importance of humor than this alien. Chances are, however, that-because of this seriousness-you've never had any direct personal experience with how humor and laughter can ease life's burdens on the tough days. This chapter shows how your sense of humor contributes to personal resilience, focusing mainly on how it provides you with a crucial skill to help cope with the mounting stress we all find in our lives these days. As Groucho Marx suggested more that half a century ago, a good sense of humor helps keep your sanity in the worst of conditions. It is a natural stress remedy that you want to take full advantage of.
As I was writing this chapter in February of 2009, the insight within the Groucho Marx and Gandhi quotes became tragically poignant. The news media had just reported that the number of suicides by military personnel returning from Iraq had risen dramatically (24 in January of 2009 among those already back in the United States). Throughout 2007 and 2008, I remember hearing endless reports about the high level of post-traumatic-stress-syndrome among returning soldiers. Spouses of returning soldiers reported relationship difficulties, noting that their spouse was just not the same person who had gone to Iraq a couple of years earlier.
In September of 2009, an article by a writer for Military Times reported that 106,726 American veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had been diagnosed with mental health issues after leaving the service (data were from a Department of Veterans Affairs study). Within this figure, 22% had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. (The article notes that this figure is probably higher, since it does not include troops still on active duty or those who have sought help outside the VA system.) But major efforts were finally underway to provide better mental health support to our returning troops by 2009. As we shall see later in this chapter, humor has long had an important role to play in military conflicts, where one's life is continually at risk.
For the past two decades, the stress level in most people's lives has continued to mount-especially because of rising job demands, but also because of rising healthcare costs, the threat of terrorism, gasoline prices, personal health problems, and finally the economic crisis of 2008-2010 on top of everything else that had us feeling we were approaching our stress limits. There is ample evidence that stress is taking a heavy toll on the nation's health-both physically and mentally/emotionally. The negative emotion accompanying stress, and the underlying physiological changes associated with it, plays a key role in generating a broad range of health problems. The ability to manage this negative emotion effectively is crucial to sustaining good physical and mental health. Humor is shown here to be a powerful tool in managing one's emotions.
In the midst of this tsunami of stress sweeping over ever-increasing numbers of people, it is more important than ever to cultivate basic skills that boost our personal and emotional resilience. As already noted in the Introduction, your sense of humor plays a key role in resilience; it helps you bend without breaking on your worst days-and cope better in meeting the challenges posed by the stress in your life. As noted below, it is a powerful ally in any effort to bounce back from adversity.
A broad range of research has documented the effectiveness of humor as a tool for coping with life stress. This includes experimental studies in which people are purposefully put in stressful situations, as well as studies of people who score higher on sense of humor tests. In both cases, humor is associated with reduced levels of anger, anxiety, depression and sadness. Consistent with these findings, exposure to humor reduces the level of stress hormones circulating in the blood. Just as importantly, humor boosts the level of positive emotion experienced at the same time that it reduces negative emotion. In fact, this boost in positive emotion appears to be one of the key mechanisms through which humor increases emotional resilience.
Humor also strengthens a general sense of psychological well being and is associated with a heightened sense of self-esteem. A good sense of humor is seen as a desirable quality in dating couples, and a great deal of evidence points to its importance in sustaining a healthy marriage.
While most of the research on humor and stress supports the positive outcomes just described, some studies have not demonstrated humor's effectiveness as a coping tool. One reason for this appears to be that measures of sense of humor have-until very recently-failed to distinguish between positive and negative forms of humor. (Failure to make this distinction may also help explain some of the inconsistent findings relating sense of humor to physical health.) New measures that do make this distinction have shown positive forms of humor to be associated with higher levels of optimism, hope, happiness, self-esteem and interpersonal competence-and lower levels of depression and anxiety. These qualities, along with humor's ability to pull you out of a negative state and substitute a positive one in its place, play an important role in accounting for the coping power of humor.
Negative and maladaptive forms of humor are associated with poorer self-esteem and interpersonal competence and higher levels of depression and anxiety. These findings make it clear that simply having a well-developed sense of humor is not enough to obtain the mental health and resilience-boosting benefits humor offers, since a well-developed negative sense of humor can actually interfere with good psychological health and effectiveness in social interaction.
There is a great deal of evidence from real-life, high-stress situations that supports the experimental research documenting humor's capacity to boost resilience. This includes findings for cancer patients, doctors and nurses (and other hospital staff), mental health professionals, victims of natural disasters, emergency personnel who respond to crises and disasters, military personnel during a war, POWs and others who must deal with a personal life crisis. These real-life findings add strength to the evidence from more artificial laboratory experiments showing the importance of humor as a coping tool.
Serious studies of the mental and physical health benefits associated with humor and laughter began a couple of decades before the creation of the new field of Positive Psychology at the beginning of the present century. However, Positive Psychology has supported key findings already obtained for humor, even though many in the field of Positive Psychology appear to be unaware of these findings. For example, Positive Psychology has shown that positive emotion in general facilitates effective coping with both acute and chronic stress and is associated with better psychological health. It is also the key to boosting resilience. This makes a strong case for the notion that it is the positive emotion that results from humor and laughter that is primarily responsible for much of their coping and resilience-boosting power. (Chapter 3 shows that humor activates known reward or pleasure centers in the brain, which helps account for the positive emotion resulting from humor.)
Several different mechanisms-in addition to the generation of positive emotion-combine to account for humor's amazing ability to help cope with life stress. One of the most important of these is the muscle relaxation (and easing of psychological tension that goes with it) that results from humor and laughter (muscle relaxation is the #1 goal of all stress management techniques). Humor also reduces the cardiovascular reactivity (increased heart rate and blood pressure) that accompanies stress, as well as the level of stress hormones circulating in the blood. It provides a means of managing your daily mood or emotional state, giving you a sense of control over at least your emotions-even when you can't control the specific circumstances causing your anger, anxiety, etc. The notion of control is a key concept in stress; your stress level mounts quickly when you feel powerless to control any stress-causing circumstance.
The ability to manage your emotions is a key component of emotional intelligence. You can consciously use humor to pull yourself out of a negative mood (whether from anger, anxiety or non-clinical depression) and substitute a more positive, upbeat frame of mind in its place. While in this more positive frame of mind, it is easier to take active steps to deal with the situation causing you stress. Equally important, humor appears to help you make a more accurate appraisal of stressful events. (This is a difficult thing to do for most people when they are angry, anxious or depressed.) Also, the ability to use humor to generate or sustain a more positive mood helps keep everyday problems and stressors in perspective. (We've all heard the phrase, "Don't sweat the small stuff.")
Finally, you will be heartened to know that it's not too late for you to learn to improve your own humor coping skills. A common assumption held by adults is that "you're either born with a good sense of humor or you're not; I wasn't, and there's nothing I can do about it." We all have a sense of humor as our biological heritage. As children, we are designed to play with our ideas. While many adults lose this quality as they go through adulthood, it's not too late to get it back. Numerous studies have now shown that adults can improve the basic foundation skills (like playing with language, finding humor in everyday life and laughing at yourself) required to use humor to cope.
* * *
In the book, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson in the film) says, "When you lose your sense of humor, you lose your footing." Another character says about McMurphy, "He knows you have to laugh at the things that hurt you, just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy." This is great wisdom from someone who lives in a psychiatric institution. Your sense of humor is one of the most potent tools you have to cope with those days when life seems determined to deal you enough stress to make you crazy. In the midst of the global economic crisis confronting us all as this book is published, most of us are finding more and more days like this showing up in our lives.
President Abraham Lincoln once read something to his advisors which he found very funny, but they didn't laugh. He said, "Why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do." When the president has a good sense of humor, we all benefit. It eases our tensions about the country's problems. As Robert Orben, a former director of the White House Speech Writing Department, once said, "A sense of humor implies a confident person ... If you can joke about a tough situation, you're saying, 'Yes, it's serious, but I'm in control.'" President Reagan eased the anxiety of an entire country after he was shot. While being taken to the hospital, he looked into the TV cameras and spoke to his wife saying, "Honey, I forgot to duck." Before his surgery, he joked with his surgeons, saying, "I hope you guys are all republicans." With memories of the assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King two decades earlier still fresh in our minds, stress levels across the country were noticeably relieved following Reagan's joking remarks.
Like tea bags, people never discover how strong they are until they get into hot water. In this chapter you will see how your sense of humor helps provide the strength you need to survive and cope well in the hottest of water.
Your Sense of Humor The Secret Ingredient for Making Lemonade
We've all heard the expression, "When life deals you lemons, make lemonade." What no one told you, however, is that the secret ingredient in this recipe is your sense of humor. It can take a sour event in your life and make it sweet(er). By learning to find a light side of the situation, you can transform the hand you've been dealt. So don't let the fact that you're feeling miserable keep you from getting some fun and joy out of life.
We will see below that humor has the power to weaken negative emotions and even transform a negative mood into a positive one. In the process, it substitutes a frame of mind that is more conducive to finding solutions to the problem that generated this negative emotion in the first place. It eases your momentary level of tension and upset and gives you a greater sense of control over your lemons. And for everyday problems, it helps keep them in perspective in terms of life's big picture. As you get better at making good comic lemonade in the midst of adversity, you'll find yourself serving it to others-comfortably and naturally-giving them the same benefits of humor that you enjoy yourself.
Excerpted from Humor by Paul McGhee Copyright © 2010 by Paul McGhee, PhD. Excerpted by permission.
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