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How to Cultivate Humor

If you're suffering depression, humor can change your state of mind.

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.

One goal of cognitive therapy is to change your perspective, your point of view. Humor is one way to change your view viscerally—and enjoyably.

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?

  • Choose to allow yourself to laugh at your own behaviors and beliefs—but not at yourself. Make that distinction clearly.

    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.

  • Insert silliness. Fill your life with one goofy thing a day. Make an unusual observation about someone. Or do something you normally wouldn't do. Wear something silly. You will learn that nothing terrible happens—and you may also discover that something good often happens.
  • Puncture a rigid mindset with a mental exercise called "paradoxical intention."

    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?

  • Exaggeration is funny because it skewers the falsehood. If you fail at a test or perform poorly at an audition, you could erroneously call yourself a failure. That, however, is an overgeneralization. Alternatively, you could see yourself as someone who failed at this particular thing, but in no way does that stamp you forever in this way.

    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."

  • Walk down the street remembering that people are nude under their clothes. It reduces fear of others. Such thoughts can take people of high status from deity to human. It helps to remember that everyone yells at their kids, spills ketchup, goes to the bathroom.
  • Play to an audience. Think of stories and items that would make others laugh.
  • Be sensitive to the words you use. They can rigidify or help loosen up your thinking.
  • Create cute, funny neologisms with your partner. Call it goofifying. Creating your own funny expressions for your experiences makes you more flexible and allows you to interpret and assess reality better.
  • Smile. Here's a favorite silly joke I can't resist passing along: What does an agnostic, dyslexic insomniac do? Stays up all night and wonders if there is a dog.