Using Humor to Cope – Laughing in the Midst of Stress

“Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh?  With the fearful strain that is upon me day and night, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.” (Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War)

“If it weren’t for the brief respite we give the world with our foolishness, the world would see mass suicide in numbers that compare favorably with the death rate of lemmings.” (Groucho Marx)

In the book, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson in the film) says, “When you lose your sense of humor, you lose your footing.”  Another character says about McMurphy, “He knows you have to laugh at the things that hurt you, just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy.”  This is great wisdom from someone who lives in a psychiatric institution.  Your sense of humor is one of the most potent tools you have to cope with those days when life seems determined to deal you enough stress to make you crazy.

The above quote from President Lincoln occurred when Lincoln read something to his advisors that he found very funny, but they didn’t laugh, presumably because of the seriousness of the situation they were dealing with.  Lincoln was convinced that it was precisely because the situation was so serious that he needed to laugh.

The same situation occurs with many cancer patients who simply cannot find the resources within them to laugh—because of the seriousness of the situation they or their loved one are dealing with.  In a recent keynote for a Cancer Survivors Day Celebration, I came across a woman with breast cancer who accidentally discovered the emotional trap her cancer had led her into.  She had had a double mastectomy, and had two prosthetic breasts.  One day, three weeks after her surgery, she went to her front porch to pick up her morning newspaper.  As she bent over to pick it up, one of her breasts popped out.  And the family dog, thinking this was a new toy, grabbed it and was running around the yard with it in his mouth.  She ran after the dog, shouting, “You come back here with my breast.  You give me my breast!”

When she realized what she was saying, she stopped and looked around to see if anyone else was up that early and heard her.  To her great relief, no one else was up.  But when she realized what she had been shouting, and thought about what the neighbors would have thought had they heard her, she started laughing and couldn’t stop.  She was laughing so hard that tears were coming out of her eyes.

When she finally stopped laughing, she realized that laughter was what had been missing from her life.  She could not remember laughing since her diagnosis of cancer.  And she was determined to never let another day go by without having some laughter in her life.  She realized that she needed to laugh, even when she didn’t feel like laughing.  The laughter itself boosted her spirits and made it easier to face the tough days.

She and Abraham Lincoln both recognized the power of humor to help them get through the difficult situation they were dealing with.  As you look at your own life, consider the obstacles you’ve had to keeping your sense of humor on the tough days.  If your sense of humor has abandoned you, go right now to the “Developing Humor Coping Skills” area of this website and start making the effort to boost your humor skills.  Research (in five countries) on my Humor Skills Training Program shows that it’s not to late to improve your sense of humor and use it to cope with the stress in your life.  This program is presented in detail in my book, Humor as Survival Training for a Stressed-Out World.

Freud pointed out a century ago that humor offers us a healthy means of coping with life stress.  George Vaillant, in his book, Adaptation to Life, reported that in-depth interviews revealed that humor was a very effective coping mechanism used by many professional men under stress.  Gail Sheehy reported the same thing for both men and women in her book, Pathfinders.

A key idea emerging in each of these books is that you need to actively use your sense of humor in dealing with the hassles and stresses in your life to get the coping benefits.  This view was confirmed over two decades ago in a Canadian study.  It showed that even if you’re someone who finds a lot of humor in everyday life, it doesn’t help you cope with stress unless you also make an effort to actively use humor to deal with that stress.

People who have access to their sense of humor in the midst of stress are much more resilient than the rest of us.  They are emotionally more flexible and can bend without breaking in the midst of the most difficult circumstances.  If you’re lucky enough to have had parents who showed a good sense of humor in the midst of stress as you were growing up, chances are you’ve already got some of those qualities within yourself.  You just need to refine and strengthen them.  There is now a great deal of research documenting humor’s power to help you cope with any form of life stress.  In the months and years ahead, articles at this website will discuss in detail the research supporting the coping power of humor.

For a more detailed discussion of this topic, along with the research references which document the positive impact of humor and laughter on pain, see my book recent book, Humor: The Lighter Path to Resilience and Health.