When you want to improve your mood, try asking yourself this question: "What's funny about this?" In order to find something funny, you have to change your perspective — a very good move to make when you’re not feeling good.
If you’re feeling bad, it won’t be easy to come up with an answer to this question, but when you do, it can often change the way you feel very effectively. Not only that, once you’ve found something funny about it, every time you think about the situation, you almost can’t help but think of what’s funny about it again, constantly softening your negative feelings about it.
This isn't a trivial question, and the ability to find the humor in a grim situation isn't a trivial skill. It makes you more capable of withstanding and competently dealing with difficult situations. When they study survivors of POW camps, one of the characteristics of survivors is they can see what’s funny about the situation. They're not clowns. They aren't laughing hysterically. But they can see the dark humor where it is.
For example, Gerald Coffee was a POW in Vietnam. His captors treated him with unbelievable brutality. At one point he was taken to a “shower.” He hadn’t bathed at all in three months. This shower was littered with garbage. It was small and the walls were covered with slime. The water came out of a rusty pipe and only trickled out. And it was cold.
As he was trying to wash off, he felt depressed. He hadn’t held up under torture as well as he expected of himself. His head was down and he felt tired and sad and deeply disappointed in himself.
Then he looked up and saw someone had scratched a message on the wall that said, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”
Coffee laughed out loud. The message was so out of place, it was funny. But Coffee also laughed because, he says, he appreciated so much “the beautiful guy who had mustered the moxie to rise above his own dejection and frustration and pain and guilt to inscribe a line of encouragement to those who would come after him.”
Al Siebert, author of Survivor Personality, says that a good sense of humor helps survivors cope. “Mental efficiency is directly related to a person’s general level of emotional arousal,” he says. “People are less able to solve problems and make precise, coordinated movements when strongly worked up. Laughing reduces tension to more moderate levels and efficiency improves.”
That's probably the best thing about humor: It instantly and dramatically relieves tension. And relaxation makes it easier to think clearly.
In experiments, researchers have found a little humor improves your cleverness. Imagine someone gives you a box of tacks, a candle, and some matches and tells you to stick the candle to a cork board in such a way that the candle doesn’t drip wax onto the floor below. Can you do it? Whether or not you can do it, Alice M. Isen and her colleagues found, might depend on whether or not you’ve just seen the humor in something.
Before they were given the problem to solve, students were shown either a comedy film of bloopers or a film on math (which was not funny at all).
After watching the math film, 20% of the students successfully solved the problem. But 75% of the students who watched the comedy film were able to do it. (The solution, by the way, is to pour the tacks out of the box and tack the box to the board, and then putting the candle on the box.)
Isen said, “Research suggests that positive memories are more extensive and are more interconnected than are negative ones so being happy may cue you into a larger and richer cognitive context, and that could significantly affect your creativity.”
Humor, of course, is good for relationships. Laughing together is a great bonding experience. It helps you like each other, and funny people are generally liked more than humorless people. They are liked more and also perceived differently.
According to a survey of recent business school graduates by Wayne Decker, PhD (a professor of management at Maryland’s Salisbury State University) women executives are considered more competent if they have a sense of humor. This coincides with previous studies showing male managers also get higher capability ratings from their underlings.
Employees rate managers with a sense of humor as 1) more effective at getting things done, and 2) more concerned about the employees’ well-being.
A good sense of humor can make a real difference. Laughing and being in a good mood can help you solve problems, can make you more ingenious, and can make you more effective in the world.
Rosemary Cogan, PhD, at Texas Tech University, already knew that when people are trained to relax, they become more able to handle pain and discomfort. She decided to find out if laughter could do that too.
She and her colleagues split volunteers into into four groups. One group listened to a tape of the comedian Lily Tomlin for twenty minutes, another group listened to a twenty-minute relaxation tape, another group listened to a lecture on ethics, and the fourth group didn’t listen to anything.
Then the researchers measured the volunteers’ threshold of pain by putting them on a medieval rack and sticking nails into their arms. Not really. They measured their pain threshold by putting a blood pressure cuff around one arm and continuing to inflate it until it was uncomfortable, and then simply measuring the amount of pressure on the dial at that point.
Two groups had the highest pain thresholds: Those listening to Lily Tomlin, and those who heard the relaxation tape.
In other words, humor actually makes you measurably tougher. It makes something painful less painful.
STRESS, HUMOR, AND HONEST ABE
Humor is an excellent (and healthy) way to deal with stress. When Abraham Lincoln was in office, you can hardly imagine a more stressful place to be for a deeply-feeling man than the White House during the Civil War. Luckily, Lincoln had a first-rate sense of humor. He had spent his whole life developing it.
When he was an attorney, Lincoln told a clerk a funny story, and the clerk laughed out loud in court. The judge called “order in the court” and said to Lincoln, “This must be stopped. Mr. Lincoln, you are constantly disturbing this court with your stories.”
Then the judge told the clerk, “You may fine yourself $5.00.” The clerk apologized but said the story was worth the five bucks. A few minutes later, the judge called the clerk over and asked, “What was that story Lincoln told you?” When the clerk told him the story, the judge couldn’t help it — he laughed out loud too. He told the clerk, “Remit your fine.”
Once someone asked Lincoln how many soldiers the Confederates had in the field, Lincoln replied, “Twelve hundred thousand.”
The astonished questioner gasped. How can that be? Lincoln said, “No doubt of it — twelve hundred thousand. You see, all our generals, every time they get whipped, they tell me that the enemy outnumbered them at least three to one, and I must believe them. We have four hundred thousand men in the field, and three times four equals twelve. Twelve hundred thousand men, no doubt about it.” He could see the humor in just about anything. That takes practice.
While some people didn’t appreciate his sense of humor and thought it was out of place for the President of the United States during those grave and dreadful times of war, Lincoln liked his sense of humor, and had an intuitive sense of its value to his sanity and health.
In 1862, during a special session of his closest advisers, Lincoln read aloud from an article by the humorist Artemus Ward, and had a good laugh, but when he looked around, not one of them was even smiling. They obviously disapproved of his frivolity.
“Why don’t you laugh?” he said, “With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”
There was a story going around that Lincoln really liked. It seems two Quaker women were comparing the president of the Confederate states with Lincoln. “I think Jefferson will succeed,” said one, “because he is a praying man.”
“But so is Abraham a praying man,” retorted the other.
“Yes,” said the first, “but the Lord will think Abraham is joking.”
One of my favorite quips Lincoln made was his opinion of a book: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”
ZEN AND THE ART OF CRACKING UP
In some forms of Zen training, the student is given a koan. A koan is a question or a story that is puzzling in some way. For example, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The discipline is to stay with the koan until you “get” it. Sometimes this takes months, even years.
When the students are monks living in a monastery, they stay with the koan while they eat, sleep, cook, clean, and also they spend time in intense periods several times a day doing nothing but hanging out with that koan (zazen, or sitting meditation).
The student stays with the koan intensely, wrestling with it, fighting with it, trying to look at it from different angles, trying to “figure it out,” allowing it to be there, and so on. Intensely. They say that it is like swallowing the moon, and it gets stuck half way down. The frustration can stay at a high pitch for a long time.
And then something happens. The student gets it. Often this is a full-blown “awakening” and the student is never the same again.
Now I have a koan for you, Grasshopper.
When you have a problem upsetting you or bringing you down, ask yourself, “How can I see this as funny?”
Choose something right now. Pick one problem upsetting you. Or something that usually brings you down when you think about it. How can you see it as funny?
You're probably not going to get any answers right away.
Hang out with the question until you “get it.” Ask yourself the question and keep asking it, and go through the frustration of not coming up with anything until finally you can, in fact, see something funny about it. Not only will your feelings about that particular thing lighten up, but your general ability to see the humor in your life will improve as well.
A good sense of humor is a trait we all admire, but very few cultivate.
Here’s the big trade secret of the famous comedians: A good sense of humor takes practice. It takes thought.
Jack Benny said his father wanted him to become a great violinist, but Jack always practiced the easy parts. His dad always told him, “To be a success in anything, you must practice the hard parts.”
“Music was hard work for me,” wrote Jack, “even though I hadn’t really been applying Father’s advice.” Jack Benny was playing the violin for vaudeville acts. Then he did a little vaudeville show by himself, playing the violin and throwing in a joke or two, which got some laughs. “Now, I reasoned, if I could entertain an audience by just breezing out on the stage, a comedian. Ah, but I soon discovered that telling jokes was not a breeze after all. Sometimes you could throw a punch line away, other times you had to ride it hard. A pause could set up a joke — or bury it. Timing was the key. In short, there were skills to be mastered in comedy, just as there had been in music. And there were many hard parts to be mastered in comedy, just as there had been in music.”
It looks so natural and spontaneous when comedians stand up there and make us laugh. You want to know why? Because they practiced making it look spontaneous and natural. A funny line is funnier when it seems spontaneous.
Now admittedly, many comedians are good at making off-the-cuff comments that are funny (and those comments are significantly more funny when we know they are extemporaneous), but even that is a skill that took practice.
You may never be that good at it. That’s okay. There’s no need to be perfect, or even the best. A little more humor is worthwhile. And you don’t have to stop your life or go to humor school or in any way use up time to learn to see the humor in things.
JUST START DOING IT
When you’re talking to people, if it’s appropriate, try to say something funny.
“But,” you might protest, “what if it doesn’t work?”
“No big deal," I would answer. "Even well-honed professional comedians bomb with jokes. You win some, you lose some, but you keep on putting it out there, learning from your mistakes.”
“But that’ll be embarrassing. People will think I’m a fool.”
“It doesn’t really matter to your listeners if it doesn’t matter to you. Of course if your face turns red or you start crying, it will bother them that your comment wasn’t funny. But if you mentally shrug your shoulders and go on, so will they.”
“Okay,” you might say, “I’ll keep making attempts at saying something funny.”
But I'm not done with you. “Sometimes it's not appropriate to say it. But you can still think something funny, and I suggest you do it often. Imagine what you might say that would make someone laugh about what's going on. You have a lot of material to work with, and you don’t even have to open your mouth.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have opportunities every day to train yourself to look at the side of life that amuses and makes you laugh, or at least produces a little smile.”
“When I’m feeling blue?”
“Whenever. You can do it when you’re feeling fine or when something has just miffed you. Either way, it’s good practice. Anytime your mind is idle, you can practice.”
“How, exactly," you ask, "do I practice?”
“Ask yourself, How could I see this as funny? Keep trying on different perspectives.”
“Yes. Try on the perspective of your favorite comedian. In fact, that's another thing you can do to help you see humor in circumstance: Listen to comedians. Lot's of humorous recordings are available digitally. And then when you've got something bringing you down, ask yourself what your favorite comedian might do with your situation? How would they describe it to an audience in a way that gets a laugh. Imagine a comedy team coming up with a skit based on your situation. What might they do? What would they make fun of? What would they exaggerate? Or try a perspective of you in the future.”
“You mean, looking back on this and laughing?”
“Exactly. Look from the perspective of you as a ninety year-old, telling your pals about your situation in a way that’s funny. What could you say about it, or how could you say it that makes them laugh?”
Ask it again and again: How could I see this as funny? Keep looking. Don't give up.
A lot of time, while you’re pondering this question, it’s not funny. Or fun. That’s okay. As anyone knows who has learned to play the piano, you have to play scales. Over and over again. It’s tedious and boring. Not fun. But when play something well — especially a song you like — it is very much fun indeed. But you can’t get there without the non-fun part.
Same with humor. So keep plugging away at it. Ask the question and keep asking it, and over time you’ll get better and better at seeing what’s funny about things.
Does this sound like work? It is.
But remember, you get benefits all along the way. You become more clever in solving problems, you feel less pain, you relieve stress, you feel better.
It raises your mood, now and in the long haul too.
USE YOUR FACE
The actual expression on your face might make it easier or harder to see what’s funny. This idea comes from an experiment by Fritz Strack, a psychologist at Mannheim University in Germany. He told people he was going to test their physical skills. Then he showed them a series of cartoons and told them to rate the cartoons’ funniness. But he told them to hold a pen in their mouth while they did it. Half of them were told to hold it between their lips; the other half, between their teeth.
The ones with the pen between their teeth rated the cartoons as funnier.
Apparently, when they held the pen between their lips, they couldn’t smile, but when it was between their teeth, they were forced to smile the whole time, and that physical change in their facial expression changed how funny something was.
Keep this in mind and use it. When you're trying to think of something funny, if nobody is looking, put an amused look on your face. It actually helps.
If you keep asking the question, you'll find ways to improve your success rate. You’ll become more flexible about your perspective; it’ll be easier to change perspectives (because that’s one of the ways to find the humor). There are subskills about humor you’ll learn along the way, so you’ll be learning an ability to see humor — not only in any specific instance you’ve practiced with, but in general. The skill will be there, and can be used on any situation life may throw your way.
And what will happen? You'll be more effective in the world, you'll be more creative at solving problems, it'll improve your relationships with people, and you’ll be happier.