By Nando Pelusi Ph.D., published on March 1, 2004 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
Humor doesn't typically come to mind in the same breath as depression. But humor can be an important ally in getting beyond the rigidity of thinking that accompanies depression and keeps people locked into a depressed state of mind.
Cultivating a humorous mindset helps you see yourself and any situation with a more supple mind so that you are not locked into a negative view. Depression is both caused by and causes the inability to see options and choices we otherwise would.
Take a common situation: someone feels very depressed in the wake of having failed at something. They cancel plans and withdraw from social opportunities. They don't feel "up to it." Under the surface, perhaps out of view of the conscious mind, the person might feel that the failure disqualifies him from the human race. However, turning around and asking out loud, "Does that disqualify me from the human race?" is humorous. It highlights the absurdity of the extreme conclusion.
We're not talking stand-up comedy, but insight-oriented commentary, achieved via anecdote and metaphor. You might feel down from a cutting remark your spouse made. But you could ask yourself: Does that "cutting" remark draw blood? Noting the metaphor puts it in its place—an obnoxious comment, but not a searing one.
Humor fosters acceptance of our humanness and our foibles. It is not sarcasm or put-downs. What we are looking for is gentle, playful perspective that embraces humanness but never at the expense of others—or of ourselves. The goal is not to take life too seriously.
So how to foster good humor?
See your life not as a distraught drama but as a romantic comedy. Recognize the inherent farce-like quality in situations including sex and relationships.
Cultivating humor not only makes life more bearable, it makes you more attractive to others. Study upon study shows that a sense of humor is high up on the list of traits that most people seek in a partner.
Suppose you have to give a speech and you are unduly anxious about looking uncomfortable. You can overcome the fear of failure by deliberately focusing on it and humorously exaggerating the very effects you fear.
Say you are worried about having to speak publicly and sweating profusely. Deliberately imagine a humorous situation where you are—literally—sweating like a fountain and spewing enough to drown the first row of the audience. Accept that you sweat like a fountain; imagine it and then think, what is the worst that could happen?
Find the humor by saying, this makes me an utter wretch, a failure now and forever, a doomed and worthless subhuman, because I didn't get the part that I wanted or my partner isn't giving me the attention I want. Get into the exaggeration until you see the absurdity of seeing yourself as a "total failure."