No kidding: Humor is an important coping tool for humans


Millions of Americans have discovered that one of the widespread side-effects of living in a time of Covid is no fun. Literally. Mental health experts call the condition “behavioral anhedonia,” a reduced ability to enjoy the pleasures of everyday life. And as you may well have noticed yourself, some of us are also losing our sense of humor.

This could almost be funny, in a darkly comic sort of way. Because our sense of humor plays an important role in helping us cope with the very stress that is causing us to lose our sense of humor. So, losing it can be kind of a serious problem.

A sense of humor is of considerable social value. It contributes to success in the workplace, and fosters psychologically healthy traits, like optimism and self-esteem. Research suggests that a healthy sense of humor can produce a more positive appraisal of incoming information. For further insight on that, I refer you to the Pony joke that ends: “And the little optimist said: With all this manure in here, there must be a pony someplace!”

Our sense of humor is a complicated sense that comes in numerous types, may be partly genetic and is probably the result of millions of years of evolution. It is centered in the right lateral frontal cortex of our brains, about where people face-palm themselves after a major “fail” and exclaim in exasperation: “I can’t believe I am such an idiot!” 

The ability to use self-deprecating humor can even be a major political asset. When John F. Kennedy was running for president, there were accusations flying that his wealthy father was attempting to buy the election. Instead of issuing outraged denials, JFK deflated the accusation balloon with a joke. At a very public political dinner, he said: “I just received the following wire from my generous daddy: ‘Dear Jack, don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.’”

Humor is so important to our well-being, there’s a serious, academic organization devoted to studies of it: The International Society for Humor Studies. It publishes a journal that “provides an interdisciplinary forum for the publication of high-quality articles on humor.” If you doubt that humor studies are serious, just get a load of its recent article: Humor and scatology in contemporary Zulu ceremonial songs.

If you’re worried that pandemic-related stress may have caused you to lose it, there are of course tests for that: The Coping Humor Scale, or the Situational Humor Response Questionnaire. There’s even a test to help you figure out what style of humor you favor, The Humor Styles Questionnaire.

And just as there are therapies to help “COVID Long Haulers” recover their sense of smell or taste, there are therapies for regaining a sense of humor. One approach begins with “finding humor in everyday life” and progresses to “laughing at personal weaknesses.” The ultimate goal is to help you enhance your ability to cope with stress using humor.

There’s also the do-it-yourself approach. Binge-watch comic video clips of people dealing with stress, like the 1952 classic of Lucy Ricardo working at the candy factory, listen to classic albums like An Evening With Mike Nichols And Elaine May. Or read a book: Norman Cousins’ best-selling memoir: Anatomy of an Illness, in which Cousins describes how he used laughter to help him boost his body’s capacity for healing and recover from what was thought to be a crippling irreversible disease. Cousins found that laughter could help relieve pain.

And rest assured, the notion that humor can be medicine for the soul is not “New Age” hokum. The concept is so old it’s in the Bible. Proverbs 17:22 tells us: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” Or, as Moses could have said: “There must be a pony in this desert someplace.” 

Barry Nolan spent time as a Psychiatric Social Worker before a 30-year career in TV, film and radio. He then spent a decade on Capitol Hill as a House and Senate staffer. He is retired, but can still be heard on NPR stations around the country as a regular panelist on the game show “Says You.”



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