Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.

Samantha Smithstein Psy.D.

What The Wild Things Are

The oil spill? What's there to laugh about?

Some laughter may seem inappropriate but in fact may be medicine.

Posted Jul 05, 2010

Recently the press has made much of a new campaign called "Still Pristine" designed to lure tourists to the Florida coastline in spite of the constant news of the oil spill disaster. The ads have become popular in no small part because they are very funny.

Is that appropriate - humor in a time of great tragedy? The ads do NOT reference the oil spill or try to make the disaster humorous in any way. Yet, they do make us laugh in a time when we are grieving - for the water, the earth, and the animals and plants all suffering from the spill. Is that sort of laughter okay?

In his book "Grief Relief: Looking for Laughter in Loss," Allen Klein writes about how laughter can be as important as tears in the grieving process, and can be actually be therapeutic, providing us with evidence that life goes on in spite of our loss, giving us hope. In a podcast, humorist Craig Zablocki makes a case that laughter and tears are related - both are cathartic and both bring us completely into the current moment rather than being fixated elsewhere (i.e. in the past, or on the grief).

Everyone can offer stories of "inappropriate humor" moments - something strikes you as funny during a funeral of a loved one, jokes about sex when hearing about a painful affair, or jokes about writing someone out of the will on the way to face a possible frightening diagnosis, to name a few. Sometimes these moments of humor can be a way to avoid difficult feelings or cover up grief. But sometimes humor can serve a different purpose. As Christine Clifford, cancer survivor and author of "Not Now... I'm Having a No Hair Day," would tell you, sometimes a humorous moment or outlook can help us to survive something that feels otherwise un-survivable. Sometimes sharing a laugh can bring us closer during a time when we feel very much alone.  Sometimes humor can be what gets us through.

A US soldier and an Iraqi share a laugh over lunch. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

About the Author

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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