Life has its ups and downs, and sometimes the downs can be particularly hard to bear. The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example: people are stressed out, we don’t know when the uncertainty will end and everyone is affected one way or another.
When people go through stressful times in life, they try to cope in various ways—they might go for a walk, reach out to their friends to talk or do some mindfulness meditation. And while all of this can help, there’s a powerful coping tool that you don’t hear about too often: humour.
Humour can be a powerful antidote to stress. When you crack a joke, instead of staying serious, you’re helping to distance yourself from the problem at hand. You’re taking a step back and putting a gap between you and your struggles, and this can make you see things more clearly. This is important because left unattended, chronic stress can suppress the immune system, increasing your risk of early death.
We all have the ability to be humorous, to see the funny side of life, to tap into cheerfulness. Even more so as children—everything seems funnier when you’re 10 years old: a phone autocorrect gone wrong, your pet wearing a raincoat, a cat gif. But when we grow up and think we’re supposed to act like adults, we start being more serious. We start to suffer from “Acquired Amusement Deficiency Syndrome (AADS)” as writer Paul McGhee puts it in his book, Humor as Survival Training for a Stressed-Out World (AuthorHouse, 2010).
Humour prevents hardening of the attitudes
When was the last time you cracked a joke or laughed? I don’t mean smiling politely and feigning amusement at someone else’s joke, but engaging in belly-ripping laughter that makes your stomach hurt and leaves you in tears?
In 1964, American journalist Norman Cousins was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a debilitating form of arthritis, which gave him severe pain and almost caused his jaws to lock. His doctors thought the condition was irreversible. Faced with the grim reality, he turned to positive emotion to heal his body.
Instead of falling into an emotional black hole and turning to alcohol or other substances to cope, Cousins decided to check into a hotel room and do something rather unusual: he started laughing. He watched TV shows and movies that would fill his body with positive emotion. “I made the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anaesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” he wrote in a 1976 article for the New England Journal of Medicine.
When we start looking at the humorous side of life and try to find something comical in a difficult situation, our outlook can change. As Joel Goodman, founder of The Humor Project says in his TEDx Talk, “humour prevents a hardening of the attitudes”. Problems that might otherwise make us feel like we’re drowning become a little less threatening and stressful. And the momentary respite we get might be the very thing we need to feel some peace of mind and gain energy to start tackling the issues facing us.
How to use humour to beat stress
After working from home for months on end, tasks can feel monotonous, like we’re going a tad crazy. But if we inject humour into the daily grind, our emotions can start to lift. As a participant in a New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences study on humour-coping on the job said: “You need a release at work… If you have a bit of fun, you will find your work a lot more enjoyable.”
The way you use humour or the way it’s used on you by others can have an impact on your mental health. Taking part in some good-natured humour can positively affect our wellbeing. If you like to make others laugh because you want to strengthen your bonds with the people around you and build friendships, this may protect you from anxiety and depression.
On the other hand, if you engage in mean-spirited humour and make fun of others, or if you allow other people to make fun of you and they cross the line one too many times, this may increase your risk of anxiety and depression.
Where to find humour
At a time when new year resolutions might be starting to wane, keep humour-coping in your survival toolkit and use it when you’re feeling blue. Even if you don’t think you’re funny, it doesn’t matter. There are specific steps we can take to become more cheerful and tap into the funny side of life.
First, simply start noticing humour. While this sounds simple, as we go about our day-to-day, juggling the to-do lists and schedules, we don’t pay enough attention to the things that could be making us laugh, and therefore make us feel better and lighter. But it is at these exact moments when we need to indulge in some humour and often, and the more we search for it the more we see it (especially at the moment).
A simple way to bring more humour into your life is to immerse yourself in situations where you can laugh more, say, attending a party online or watching a series that amuses you. When we start looking for humour and ways to laugh, this not only makes us feel better, but our positive emotions can rub off on other people because emotions are contagious.
Humour-coping isn’t just about telling a joke or being funny. It’s about finding ways to bring cheerfulness into your life. Finding ways to forget about your troubles and take a breather, even if it’s only for a few moments. And this can have a significant impact on your health and on your wellbeing.
Dr Olivia Remes is a mental health researcher at the University of Cambridge and a life coach