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How to Use Humor to Care For Your Health and Cope with Hard Times

by PAUL OSINCUP

As my wife Kelly and I walked into our smoke- and soot-filled home after a wildfire had torched our canyon and burned the backside of our house, we burst out in laughter. “Paul! Did you put the horses like that again?!” my wife asked. We realized that when our neighbors and a firefighter were extinguishing the fire burning our kitchen windows, they were greeted with quite an image. The night before we had evacuated, I was cleaning the kitchen and decided to move the two Swedish “Dala” horse figurines in the windowsill. Like an eighth grader, I made one mount the other. (We live across the street from a horse-boarding ranch, so perhaps I’m easily influenced.) As we surveyed our burned home, this dose of humor was a welcome signal that regardless of the situation, we were going to be ok.

With Covid, elections, racial injustice, natural disasters, and everything else going on, it may feel like this isn’t the time for humor. And it’s true that the gravity of our current struggles is no laughing matter. That being said, while we can’t always laugh at our struggles, we can always laugh through them.

Humor Helps: Here’s the Science

Finding the humor in our everyday lives is good for our health and well-being, and it is a health coping strategy. Over the years, studies have shown that humor and laughter can help to:

So Now What? Here’s How to Incorporate “Humor Habits” Into Your Day-to-Day

You might be thinking: This is great, but I’m just not that funny. If you’re thinking that to yourself… you’re probably right. You might not be that funny, but you are self-aware and/or modest—both of which are crucial to becoming funny.

The great thing is, you don’t have to be naturally funny to get good at using humor. The first step is to train your brain toward a funny focus. Sharpening your “funny focus” by developing humor habits follows Hebbian theory that “neurons that fire together, wire together.”  Simply, the more you do it, the better you get at it and the research shows that you’ll be able to make more free and abstract associations with humor.  It’s about being intentional and not simply hoping for humor, but harnessing it. It’s ok if you aren’t naturally funny. Humor is not a talent. Humor is a habit.

You can develop this humor mindset by incorporating these 8 “Humor Habits” into your life:

  1. Curate your personal comedy collection.
    • Spend some time on social media following and liking as many pages as possible that make you laugh. This way, humor will show up more often in your feeds.
    • Have a “Humor Homie” and share funny things back and forth. Even if you don’t have time now to watch that funny video now it’s ok, research shows that even just the anticipation of humor can help to decrease stress .
  2. Prime the pump for positivity.
    • Rather than always listening to work related or news related podcasts, listen to funny podcasts while community or doing work around the house. The Laughable app is great for this. The goal is to learn to experience humor not by chance… but by choice.
  3. Learn how to laugh.
    • I know it sounds weird, but consider this: When you’re watching something funny or find something humorous, are you actually laughing? Several years ago, I realized I wasn’t laughing much and was intellectualizing humor. I would think oh that’s hilarious and would maybe smile, but I would not laugh. I began to fake it. Not a crazy amount, but just a bit. If something made me smile, I might let out an audible “Ha.” If something gave me a light chuckle, I would purposely laugh a little louder and harder. By focusing on letting myself actually laugh, I’ve developed a real laugh. Now I actually “lol” far more often than I used to.
  4. Create a funny things intervention.
    • Write down three funny things every day. Researchers have found that people who write down three things they found humorous or amusing on each day for one week, they were able to increase their overall happiness and decrease depressive symptoms for up to six months. The great thing about this exercise is that you can begin to train your brain to find the humor in things in real time, rather than retrospect.
  5. Play the “What I Could’ve Said” game.
    • If you’re the type of person that always thinks of the funny thing you could have done or said after the moment has passed, that’s ok! Go with it. Come up with various humorous ways you could have handled a situation or found humor in it. The more often you do this, the more quickly your brain will start making these connections. This technique is called “Humorous Reappraisal” and is found to be a helpful coping strategy and build resilience, according to a study from Stanford.
  6. Take a “Funny 15.”
    • Set an alarm to take a break where you watch a funny video. Not only will this keep your brain in “funny focus” training, it will keep you sharper and more productive for the rest of the day. People who take a break and watch a funny video are twice as productive when returning to work as those who took a break with no humor. Of course, if you’re like me, then you may also need to set an alarm to stop watching funny videos and get back to work!
  7. Keep a “Humor Jar”
    • This can be a small container at the house or office with slips of paper nearby. As funny things happen throughout your day, write them down and put them in the jar. At the end of the month, year, whatever, look through your jar and relive the funniest moments,
  8. Exaggerate and heighten your situation.
    • One of the easiest ways improv and stand-up comics create humor is through exaggeration. In fact, exaggeration is used so often, it’s up a million percent this year… ba-dum bum! Well, I tried. Anyway, when experiencing a mildly stressful situation, just heighten it until it becomes ridiculous.
    • For example, if you have a flat tire and are waiting for a tow you might text home and say… “Hi honey, I blew a tire and I’ve been waiting for a tow for three hours—but I’ll be home as soon as I can.” Then, why not decrease your stress and your partner’s stress by sending another text and heightening it to a ridiculous level?… “Please tell the kids I love them, wish them luck in college, and text me pictures if they produce grandchildren.”

I’m trying to maintain my funny focus as I write this piece from my 400 sq. foot “Tiny House” on a trailer in Montana where me, my wife, two dogs, and our cat are staying for six months while our house is being restored from the fire damages. Lucky for me, as a guy who stands at 5’4” tall, soaking wet, you just call a tiny house… a house.


This exclusive essay was featured in the October 25, 2020 edition of The Sunday Paper. This essay is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. The views are those of the expert. The Sunday Paper publishes News and Views that Rise Above the Noise and Inspires Hearts and Minds. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

PAUL OSINCUP

Paul Osincup is a Speaker and Humor Strategist who helps organizations create happier, healthier, and more connected places to work. Paul’s global mission for workplace happiness has provided him the opportunity to work with hundreds of organizations including Nasdaq and the Harvard Kennedy School of Leadership. He’s a content creator for the health & well-being app Happify, and a certified Stress Mastery Educator with the American Institute of Stress. His TEDx Talk: “Leading with Laughter, the Power of Humor in Leadership” is used in corporate and collegiate leadership courses around the world and he is the President of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. Paul’s work has been highlighted in The New York Times, Forbes, and on his mom’s refrigerator.

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