Can Humor Save the Day?

Science shows taking fun seriously can boost your resilience.

Posted Nov 30, 2020

Pewara Nicropithak/Shutterstock
Source: Pewara Nicropithak/Shutterstock

2020 has delivered no shortage of tragedy.

We’ve been stretched like Gumby and Friends and thrust into what feels like some weird dystopian social psychology experiment gone wrong. Like we’re characters being followed by hidden cameras in a daunting Groundhog Day/Humpty Dumpty/Survivor/1984/What Would You Do/Scared Straight mash-up. Like we have to be a superhero to keep our wits about us through the endless material of this year. Like reality is the strangest brew of tragedy and comedy we can reckon with.

We are in the clutches of an era that requires every ounce of resilience we can muster. Chicken Little is always on the prowl. We have to be on our toes constantly, with non-stop material that we could laugh or cry at, depending on the mood of the day. Trevor Noah, Mindy Kaling, Leslie Jones, and Sarah Cooper have become as critical as our therapists and meditation teachers.

Traditional strategies like proper self-care, healthy habits, and connections are commonly known to be supported in science. But laughter has also been shown to be critical medicine for the brain, body, and soul. In resilience research, humor is seen as a protective factor for our mental health and well-being.

In short, we need to crack up, so we don’t crack up.

This can seem irreverent or superficial given the enormity of the pandemic, social-political polarization, economic crises, and ongoing ills of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, religious bigotry, and Xenophobia. None of this should be taken lightly. But humor can open pathways to healing, calling society out, and helping us to use wittiness and playfulness as a catalyst for resilience so that we can find the stamina to realize real social change.

There is no shortage of material and places to find humor. Whether The Onion, podcasts, or shows like SNL, Schitt’s Creek, and The Good Life, and writers like Samantha Irby and Lindy West, there are more options to indulge in humor than items on the Cheesecake Factory menu.

And beyond what we can consume within the vastness of the comedy world, we can be our own comics, starring in our own version of The Daily Show. During tough times, we often recognize the power of creative imagination and our spiritedness. We can take fun seriously. Here’s how:

1. Crack up so you don’t crack up. Realize the mental health risks of today are serious. Include time in your schedule for fun and playfulness. Look for the humor in situations, even when it feels impossible to find. Laughter and tears are both therapeutic-we need both to process such hard times.

2. Improv your life. 2020 has required Olympiad agility from all of us. In Improvisation for the Spirit, comedian Katie Goodman reminds us of the vital nature of spontaneity, being present in the moment, courage, surrender, and non-attachment in everyday life.

3. Make time for play. With all we are juggling, it can feel like there is no room to let loose. Leisure is often stigmatized, but a vital source of recalibration. Invoke your childhood spirit and sense of adventure. When we toggle from the intensity of our lives into fun modes, the neurochemical benefits can keep us going. Write a parody, put on a costume, make weird noises, tell Dad jokes, sing off-key, and find ways to take your hands off the handlebars even if for a few minutes.

4. Make fun of social tides that are hurtful. Society needs a good roasting for us to recognize the things being reinforced that are unhelpful and oppressive. Humor is a critical thinking skill. Examining behavior through a social psychology lens can help us see the insidious nature of life and give us the momentum to rise against it, rather than fall prey to it. 

5. Appreciate the characters in your life. What could bring more hilarity than being locked up with family members for months on end? Close quarters in COVID can be simultaneously frustrating and entertaining. People’s behavior is often predictable and classic. Seeing each other through a comedic lens can help diffuse tensions and help us shake our heads with a smile. Also, stay in touch with your fun and funny friends, who you can riff with and recount silly memories and moments with. Especially if you live alone, which also necessities creative strategies.

6. Rewrite the story as comedy. Flip your material. Journaling isn't the only form of therapeutic writing. Take a cue from brave comedians like Ms. Pat (Patricia Williams) and Neil Brennan who have rewritten their own traumatic stories through comedy. Start with small steps. It might not be that you tackle your hardest material. As Jean Webster puts it, it requires spirit to tackle the“petty hazards of the day with a laugh”. What events of the day can you turn into a story? What parts of your life seem like they could be a movie? Consider writing a tight-five stand-up routine and perform it for friends, or taking an improv or stand-up comedy class.

The stress of 2020 doesn’t feel like a laughing matter. Still, we are wired for resilience and comedy plays a major role in helping us stay well.

References

Goodman, K. (2008). Improvisation for the Spirit. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks.

Lee, K. (2018). Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking: Learn What it Takes to Be More Agile, Mindful and Connected in Today's World. Deerfield Beach, Florida: HCI Books.