A year and a half ago, John McManamy interviewed me on the topic of humor in relation to mental health in a post he called “On the Dark Side of Humor.” I explained to him that of all my tools to combat depression and anxiety, humor is by far the most fun. I realize I run into trouble with some folks who think there is nothing funny about being depressed and not able to get up from bed. But even if you have a broken funny bone while buried in the Black Hole, the minute you surface I think it’s helpful to look back and poke fun of what just happened. If that is at all possible.
I wasn’t always able to laugh at myself. In fact, on my dad’s deathbed, he urged me to have more fun. That was his only wish. I took life WAY too seriously and was annoyed by people who didn’t.
And then it happened. One day I snapped.
I explained to John:
I believe in the theory of the rubber band. Your brain (sanity) is stretched, and stretched, and stretched, and stretched to where it … ZAP! … just snaps one day, and from that day on, everything in life is somewhat hysterical because you can’t believe how messed up the world is. You see everyone around you trying to walk straight while juggling five heavy suitcases of baggage … and for some reason, it’s funny, and you know you can’t take life so seriously. As G.K. Chesterston once said, “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”
Stephen Colbert was interviewed in Parade magazine a while back, and he explained the night to burst out of his shell of pretension and was able to fully be himself on stage. He said, “Something burst that night, and I finally let go of the pretension of not wanting to be a fool.” I don’t know, John, something burst in the psych ward, where I sat eating rubber chicken with women wearing granny underwear for everyone to see and painting birdhouses with a teenage boy who wanted to hook up with me at the mall after we were discharged. Some people probably wouldn’t find the humor in it. But man, they do make great social hour stories (and especially since I don’t drink or use any illegal drugs).
Laughing, of course, does more than help you get through a social hour. It has substantial health benefits. In her book, Laugh Your Way to Grace, stand-up comedian and pastor (yes, an odd combination), Rev. Susan Sparks highlights some of them. She tells the story of Norman Cousins, which I find fascinating:
It is no secret that laughing is an amazing healer. Back in 1979, The New England Journal of Medicine published a report based on Norman Cousins, a noted journalist and editor of the Saturday Review. In the 1960s Cousins had been diagnosed with a debilitating spinal disease and given a 1/500 chance of survival. Based on his belief in the importance of environment on healing, Cousins checked himself out of the hospital and into a hotel, where he took large doses of vitamin C and watched continual episodes of Candid Camera and the Marx Brothers. He found, over time, that laughter stimulated chemicals in his body that allowed him several hours of pain-free sleep. He continued the treatment until, eventually, his disease went into remission, and he was able to return to work. The study became the basis for a best-selling book, Anatomy of an Illness, as well as a television movie of the same name.
Since Cousin’s ground-breaking study, numerous scientists and doctors have conducted similar tests with similar results. Some are enough to make you smile. The University of Maryland, for example, conducted a study where people were shown laughter-provoking movies to gauge their effect on cardiac health. The results, presented at the American College of Cardiology, showed that laughter appeared to cause the inner lining of blood vessels to dilate, thus increasing blood flow and avoiding dangerous vessel constriction. Consistent evidence has been shown that laughter, over time, offers significant medical benefits, including boosting the immune system, lowering blood pressure, improving heart and respiratory functions, even regulating blood sugar.
How does laughter do all of this?
I think it has mainly to do with a quote by Victor Frankl that I am always reminded of in the writings of Psych Central blogger Elisha Goldstein: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Laughter and humor, then, forge that space between stimulus and response, or between a thought and a feeling, between an event and an emotion. And in that pause is the freedom to adjust our perspective and our interpretation of our situation. It seems small. But it’s rather substantial.
This brief interruption can be the difference between feeling miserable and feeling just a tad uncomfortable.
So I say fix your funny bone and teach yourself how to see the comedy in bad brain chemistry, the humor in mood disorders, and the satire in dysfunctional situations, because sometimes the only thing we can change is our perspective. Ha!