There is absolutely nothing funny about what we are all going through. The world as we know it has changed, possibly, forever. The daily news reports are filled with information about the soaring rates of the virus, the mounting deaths, and the plunging stock market. People are anxious, fearful, and grieving. We worry about our children, our family, our friends, and having enough food. There are not enough places to house the dying or bury the dead. Loneliness itself is becoming a pandemic.
So what is there to laugh about? It is because of all these dreadful, horrible things that we need to find laughter in our lives. Even if it is something that just makes us smile for a moment or gives us a brief laugh. We need it to sustain us for the sake of our sanity and our physical well-being.
Humor and laughter are important coping skills. Humor can be a buffer from the negative effects of all the stress we are under. Laughter has been shown to strengthen our immune system, improve alertness, increase endorphin levels, lower blood pressure, increase the production of t-cells, and help the pituitary gland release its own suppressing opiates. Laughter increases our intake of oxygen-rich air. It is also a release for pent-up tension. That is a lot for such a simple behavior.
The other day, I was talking to a friend who is also a therapist. We were stressed out trying to adapt to using teleconferencing in our clinical work. Somehow the conversation turned to our hair and what it was going to look like when all this was over. A most trivial matter in these trying times but we both had a good laugh and felt a lot better as a result. Things didn’t feel so overwhelming anymore.
Not only does laughter help us physically, but it benefits us emotionally as well. Humor has a way of putting everything in perspective and as such, it reduces our fears. It helps us to put some distance between ourselves and the difficult things we confront. Laughter is comforting and relaxing. It can remind us of happier times. Laughter can be contagious. If someone is laughing, we want to join them. It has been found that even if there is nothing funny happening, there are still physical benefits from smiling and laughing. Your body does not know the difference if you are imitating laughter or truly laughing. The same is true for smiling. Laughter yoga and laughing meditation are based on the idea that laughing when there is nothing humorous happening is beneficial.
The use of humor for survival has been found even in the most hellish of places. Victor Frankl, himself a concentration camp survivor, stated that he never could have made it through if he did not have laughter. Even if it was just for a moment, it helped him and others rise above the situation.
Humor also played a role in keeping prisoners of war alive. In the Vietnam war, prisoners who were isolated from each other were said to have tapped out jokes on the walls in Morse code to one another. In the late 1960s, the USS Pueblo was captured off the North Korean coast. The prisoners were being treated very badly but the North Koreans wanted to show the world that they were being treated humanely. So they took a group picture. What the captors failed to notice was that some of the men were extending their middle finger, a gesture they told their captors was called a Hawaiian good luck sign. Eventually, the captors caught on and the men were punished. But for a while, they and those who saw the picture were able to smile and laugh about it.
So what can we do in such dire times to keep humor and laughter alive? We can:
- Watch funny YouTube videos, movies, TV shows, and stand-up comedians.
- Watch our pets for funny playful behaviors.
- Watch and listen to our children. They can also make us smile and laugh.
- Read comic strips and humorous books.
- Reminisce about true stories from situations in your past that gave you a good laugh.
- Tell jokes to each other.
- Play board games.
- Laugh at yourself. We are all probably unintentionally doing goofy things.
The late comedian Milton Berle said that laughter is an instant vacation. We could all certainly use one right now.
Frank, V. (1992). Man’s Search For Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. 4th ed.22 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA., Beacon Press.