The Seventh Humor Habit: Find Humor in the Midst of Stress

“Were it not for my little jokes, I could not bear the burdens of this office.”   (Abraham Lincoln)

“I have seen what a laugh can do.  It can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful.”  (Bob Hope)

There is great wisdom in these words from one of this country’s greatest Presidents and comedy performers.  There is now an enormous amount of research (discussed in my book, Humor: The Lighter Path to Resilience and Health) that documents the power of humor to help cope with the most difficult burdens in our daily lives.  Examples in natural disasters also bear out many people’s ability to laugh in the midst of tragedy.  Why is it that some people joke about the tornados or hurricanes that have destroyed their homes?

“Compact Car.”  (Sign on a car flattened by a tree following a tornado.)

“House for Sale.  Half Off.”  (Sign in front of what was left of a house following a California mud slide.)

“House for Sale.  Some assembly required.”  (Sign in front of a house after a hurricane.)

Why do nurses, doctors, police, firemen and others who work regularly in situations that exposed them to death and dying have such a strong (and sometimes “sick”) sense of humor?  Because they learn that they could emotionally survive the demands of their jobs otherwise.  They know from personal experience the power of humor to help them cope.

There’s just one problem with all of this evidence (from research, as well as personal experience) that our sense of humor is such a powerful coping tool; most of us find that our sense of humor abandons us right when we need it the most—when we’re under stress!  It doesn’t matter where this stress comes from.  These days, most of us are under more stress because of the sour economy, the rising cost of health care, uncertainty about our jobs, and more.  If you’re lucky enough to still have a job, it’s almost certain that there’s greater demands imposed on you in your work than there used to be.

So how do you go about keeping your sense of humor when you’re having your personal version of a bad day?  If you’ve been making the effort to do the Habit-building humor exercises and activities suggested in both these articles and on the radio (the archives of those early broadcasts are now accessible), you’ve already build up the basic humor habits required to use humor to cope with stress.  So the key now is to just KEEP DOING THE SAME THINGS YOU’VE BEEN DOING . . . even when you’re having a bad day.

The basic rationale for this entire Humor Training Program is to build up key Humor Habits on your good days—when you’re not under stress—and then focus on doing the same things on the tough days.  Two additional specific suggestions are provided here to get you started building this Habit.  See Humor as Survival Training for a Stressed-Out World for more guidelines for reaping the full benefits of this final week of the 7 Humor Habits Program.

How to Build the Habit of Using Humor to Cope

1. Start with common/predictable stressors that often come up on your job or elsewhere in your daily life.

It’s hard to keep your sense of humor under stress because stress generates tension, anxiety, anger, or depression within you—all of which are incompatible with the frame of mind where humor thrives.  So have a planned light response of some kind to fall back on when the stressful situation comes up.  Put up a reminder (on your desk, your refrigerator at home, etc.) in a place where you’re sure to see it when the tough situation comes up.  This reminder could be your favorite cartoon (especially one which draws attention to the source of stress—e.g., a Dilbert cartoon related to some aspect of your job), a pair of Groucho glasses, the simple words “OK, what’s funny about this?” or anything else that reminds you of the specific funny thing you planned in advance to do or say.

2. Look for a light side of stressful situations in your past.

It’s always easier to see the funny side of things the next day or week.  We’re not so caught up in the stress of the moment, so we can distance ourselves from the situation and see a way in which it really was funny.  You may even have said to yourself at some point in the past, “Some day we’ll look back at this and laugh.”  Why wait!

3. Look for a light side of others’ problems.

Again, this is easier because you can see the stress the other person, but it doesn’t affect you personally.  This is a perfect opportunity to practice thinking what funny remark you could make if it were you.  By doing this with others’ problems, you’ll soon build up the ability to do it with your own problems.  The key here is to not tell the other person how funny the situation is—if only they could see it.  Keep you funny insights to yourself.  Of course, it’s good practice to share them with others later on.

[Note: If you are new to this website or to my series of radio broadcasts on improving your sense of humor, go back to the February 10 article under “Radio Humor Training Exercises.”  You should pursue the suggestions made in this article only after reading the other articles.]

Copyright owned by Paul McGhee.  This article may not be reproduced without written permission granted by Paul McGhee.