Whenever the subject of my profession comes up, people invariably make jokes about being ‘crazy’ or ‘insane.’ I know they’re just trying to be funny, but the consistency of this reaction troubles me, because psychology is so much more than the knee-jerk negative overtones of Freud, spooky asylums, and the Lifetime Channel.
Our human psychology is full of positive aspects! Though a list of all the good things about the way we think would occupy more pages than The Wave allows me, one positive characteristic of emotional health that always creates interest is the concept of a sense of humor.
The true psychological research is fairly recent, but the study of humor dates back to at least the 13th century, when physicians and philosophers described the health benefits of laughter. Clinical psychologist Rod A. Martin, Ph.D., of the University of Western Ontario, describes sense of humor as ‘habitual individual differences in all sorts of behaviors, experiences and ‘abilities relating to amusement, [and] laughter.’ Far from being an isolated trait, humor is so wide-ranging it can certainly be labeled as a true emotional response, therapeutic, and therefore, healthy.
Psychological studies suggest that a sense of humor does, indeed, improve your mental health. People who possess this trait are found to be more motivated, cheerful, trustworthy, and exhibit higher self-esteem. Researchers describe the evidence that humor and laughter may even have beneficial effects on physical health, including our immune systems, tolerance to stress and pain, our blood pressure, how long we live, and how we respond to symptoms of certain illnesses. Because a sense of humor itself is so hard to describe, it’s difficult to nail down specific physical benefits, but there is no doubting the fact that laughter makes us feel better. Even Sigmund Freud viewed a sense of humor as “a rare and precious gift’the highest of the defense mechanisms.’ ‘By means of humor,’ stated Freud, “one refuses to undergo suffering’and victoriously upholds the pleasure principle, yet all without quitting the ground of mental sanity.”
In 1995, Dr. Martin, along with Dr. Nicholas Kuiper, performed a study in which 80 adults kept a ‘humor diary,’ recording each incident in which they laughed aloud, and their stress levels and mood at the time. 56% of their laughter occurred spontaneously during social interactions. Laughter in response to radio, television and the like accounted for 18%, while laughter resulting from the humorous retelling of a past event made up 15% of the total. Interestingly enough, laughing in response to a joke was the least common; only 11% of the total incidents. Laughter was more frequent in the evening than in the morning, and nearly 90% of laughter took place when the subject was with other people, with nearly two-thirds of the incidents in response to funny remarks made by others.
Two of the most interesting aspects of this study were the positive effects of laughter on emotional well-being, and the ‘leveling’ effect of laughter on stress and mood. In particular, the subjects who laughed more often did not report being in a bad mood in response to stressful events. In fact, men who laughed more frequently during the day tended to describe stressful situations as challenging and invigorating, rather than intimidating and harmful.
Well, if you’ve stayed with me throughout all these percentages and studies, then I guess I have your attention. Indeed, my experience over the last twenty years supports the good doctors’ findings 100%. A humorous ‘take,’ no matter how serious the situation, contributes significantly to the success of counseling, therapy, or just plain ‘feeling better.’ And what is success? Nothing more than achieving whatever goals you originally set out to achieve! Seeing yourself objectively, or ‘with detachment,’ is an effective method for defining and eventually resolving whatever conflict or issue you may face.
Do you ever notice how easy it is to give brilliant advice to others; clearly recognizing, from a distance, their flaws and strong points? It’s easy to be objective when you’re observing (and, let’s face it, judging) another person. But it’s a lot more challenging to apply that same objectivity to yourself. The capacity to detach and stand outside of your self is a powerful technique for self-evaluation and assessment. And, a sense of humor, along with all the beneficial psychological and physical effects, is a key tool for doing just that. Just as a comedian stands back and views life in a funny way, the talent for observing yourself impartially, from a distance, can’t be overestimated.
So how can you do it? In times of stress, try to look at the situation neutrally, without emotion. Look at yourself as you would look at another person. Try to recognize, in Dr. Martin’s words, your ‘individual differences in all sorts of behaviors and experiences’.’ Observe these differences—the good AND the bad. Learning to get out of your own way and by-pass the emotional baggage will help you take yourself a little less seriously, and maybe even generate a smile or a laugh. The positive effect on your psychological—and physical— well-being will prove, once again, that laughter is, in fact, the best medicine.