WHEN YOU SEE A STAND-UP comic or watch
a funny movie, it seems so natural and spontaneous, and if you're
like me, you occasionally have the thought, "I wish I could
see the humor in situations like the comedian does." A good
sense of humor is a trait we all admire, and for good reason:
It's good for your health, your relationships, good for relieving
stress, it feels good, and it even enhances your ability to solve
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? That might just depend on
whether or not you've just seen the humor in something. That's
what psychologist Alice M. Isen and her colleagues found in an
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
A good sense of humor is no laughing matter.
It makes a difference. Laughing and being in a good mood can
help you solve problems, can make you more ingenious, can make
you more effective in the world.
laughing can kill pain
Rosemary Cogan, PhD, at Texas Tech University,
knew that when people were trained to relax, they became
more able to handle pain and discomfort while they relaxed. She
decided to find out if laughter could do that too. She
and her colleagues took volunteers and split them 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. No, just kidding. They measured their
pain threshold by putting a blood pressure cuff around their
arm and continuing to inflate it until it was uncomfortable,
and then they simply measured the amount of pressure on the dial
at that point.
Two groups had higher pain thresholds:
Those listening to Lily Tomlin, and those who heard the relaxation
Humor actually makes you measurably tougher.
It makes something painful less painful. That's handy.
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.
This is yet another way that laughter and humor increase your
effectiveness in life.
stress, humor, and honest Abe
Humor is an excellent and healthy way to
deal with stress. When Abraham Lincoln was in office during the
Civil War, you can hardly imagine a more stressful place to be
for a deeply-feeling moral man than the White House. 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. Then he
told the clerk, "Remit your fine."
Once someone asked Lincoln how many soldiers
the Confederates had in the field, Lincoln replied, "Twelve
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 advisors, 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 and live 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.
I have a koan for you. When you have a
problem that is upsetting you or bringing you down, ask yourself,
"How can I see this as funny?" Hang out with the question
until you "get it." If there's something that is obviously
not funny in your life, something troubling or upsetting, ask
this 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: It 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 because they practiced
making it look spontaneous and natural. 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, usually from the time they were kids.
Sometimes a child will decide to be funny,
to be good at making people laugh, and since kids don't usually
have much to do with their time, and they spend a lot of time
hanging out with their friends, they have lots of time to practice,
and some of those kids grow up to be the comedians we know and
love, and they are extremely good at it.
You may never be that good at it. But 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,"
I say, "if it's appropriate, try to say something funny."
"But," you might protest, "what
if it doesn't work?"
"No big deal. Even well-honed professional
comedians bomb with jokes."
"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 and 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."
"And thinking something funny.
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."
"Ask yourself, How could I see
this as funny? Keep trying on different perspectives."
"Yes. Try on the perspective of your
favorite comedian. What do you think they might do with your
situation? How would they describe it to an audience in a way
that gets a laugh? Imagine a comedy team making a skit out of
your situation. What could they do with it? What would they make
fun of? What would they exaggerate. Try a perspective of you
in the future."
"You mean, looking back on this and
"Exactly. Look from the perspective
of you as a ninety year-old, telling your pals about it in a
way that's funny. What could you say about it, or how could you
say it that makes them laugh?"
Ask again and again: How could I see
this as funny? 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 you
can finally 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.
Here's a tip: 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 took a bunch of people
and told them 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. Interesting. And it might have some usefulness
to you in your quest to see things as funny.
If you keep asking this question, you will
find other 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 humor. There are certain
pathways and subskills about humor you'll learn along the way,
so you'll be skilled at seeing 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 that life may
throw your way.
And what will happen? You will be more
effective in the world, you will be more creative at solving
problems, it will improve your relationships with people, and
you'll be happier.
Ask yourself, and keep asking,
"How can I see this as funny?"