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Mental Wellness Blog

Humor and Mental Health

Humor and Mental Health

Written by Kelle Watson, M.A. LPC
Director of Clinical Counseling, Catholic Charities of Eastern Virginia

Typically, when we think of mental health, we tend to think in terms of the negative aspects attributed to mental health such as depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, anger, and the list goes on. We don’t normally link mental health with positive qualities or attributes and rarely do we link humor to mental health. But, did you know that humor is actually considered a positive coping skill that can improve your mental health?

What a wonderful coping skill to utilize and access! But, how do we begin to apply this positive coping skill to our lives? In order to do so, it may help to look more closely at the meaning of the word, humor. The dictionary defines humor as “a mood or a state of mind’. If humor can be a mood that we’re in or a state of mind that we have, it appears that it is something that we have the ability to readily access to improve our mental health. So using humor can not only help us cope, but put us in a better mood while we’re doing so!

Sometimes this is easier said than done. Think of the last day you had where everything went wrong.

When we have days like that we tend to get in a bad mood and stay in a bad mood for most of the day. But with a little shifting in our mindset, our thought patterns, and our inner self talk, we can turn the bad mood into a better mood by utilizing and accessing humor. Recall again the last day you had when everything went wrong. In hindsight and with enough distance, don’t you find that day humorous? You should. We find it funny listening to someone else’s bad day where everything goes wrong. We love watching videos of people falling, getting hit by something, watching their plate of food fall on the ground, watching their dog push them into the pool, etc. There are several long running shows such as America’s Funniest Videos and Ridiculousness that we enjoy watching because someone else is having a bad day, falling down or being embarrassed in some way. So, if we can laugh at others, we can also learn to laugh at ourselves. If we can laugh at ourselves, then we can use humor to overcome the ups and downs of life whether they be big or small. Let’s face it, life throws a lot at us and it is not all good. If we can’t find the humor in those days, then we are underutilizing this marvelous coping skill. Here’s an example of how to utilize this coping skill by learning how to laugh at yourself. Once, I went to the mall in a brand new outfit head to toe. I spent a lot of time cutting the numerous tags off my new purchases. As I began to walk through the mall, more than the usual amount of people were looking at me. I reasoned they were admiring my new outfit, my fashion sense, or both. I was feeling pretty confident about myself and wanted to walk past a mirror so I could also admire what everyone else was. As I caught a sideways glimpse of myself in a mirror, something was amiss. Not only was my fly down, but a tag that I missed on my new pants was sticking straight out waving like some kind of flag from my opened fly! No wonder everyone was looking at me! How embarrassing! But also, how funny!

It is very healthy to learn how to laugh at yourself. For some though, laughing can be a very foreign thing to them. Have you ever met someone who never laughs or smiles and doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor? Life for them is one long, sad, difficult journey. Years ago I met someone like this. She walked around looking like she had been sucking on lemons all day. Apparently, one day I made her laugh. It was such a different feeling for her that she just had to tell me she hadn’t laughed in ten years! How is that possible I wondered? How does a person go through life without some type of humor or the ability to laugh? Life is going to offer up an array of experiences, good and bad. If we are not able to traverse these experiences in a healthy way, we will become knocked down and defeated and have a long, sad, difficult journey through life much like this person was having. We really should laugh more than once in ten years!

On the opposite end of the spectrum, think about the funniest person you know. Now think about what kind of mood you are in when you are with them. Aren’t you happier, more joyful, lighter? Aren’t they someone you want to be around? Don’t they improve your mood? I have had multiple multigenerational relatives who saw the humor in life’s ups and downs. By their example, I learned to develop a sense of humor in regards to life circumstances, whether good or bad. They taught me that even if things are terrible, you can use humor to cope with life, maybe not at first, but with some time and distance. When we are able to apply this coping skill, we are also able to instill this coping skill in our children so they can learn to use humor to deal with whatever life throws at them. What a wonderful gift to pass down, resiliency through humor!

As I thought more about humor, I wondered about the specific positive effects humor may have on us both physically and mentally and I found these amazing facts about the benefits of humor and laughing:

Humor has been linked to a higher state of both physical and psychological well-being.

  • Humor improves our immune system due to the release of anti-infection antibodies.
  • Humor can increase our psychological resiliency.
  • Humor can help us connect to others.
  • Humor can lower anxiety levels.
  • Humor can counterbalance depression.
  • Humor has been linked to an improvement in short term memory.
  • Humor releases serotonin in your brain which improves focus.
  • Humor is one of the top qualities someone looks for in a significant other.
  • Laughing can increase oxygen rich air into our hearts and decrease arterial wall stiffness.
  • Laughing can stimulate our lungs and muscles and also relaxes them.
  • Laughing can increase oxygen in our brain leading to increased “feel good” endorphins.
  • Laughing relieves physical tension.
  • Laughing can even burn calories!

While utilizing humor as a positive coping skill is good for everyone, it is especially good for those in therapy. It is hard to smile and laugh and also be depressed.  I have found even the most depressed clients respond to humor in session. Everything changes for them; their posture changes, their facial expressions change, they smile and they laugh. Maybe for the first time all week! Humor can be a therapeutic respite from the struggle of depression, anxiety, grief, etc. When I saw just how powerful humor was in therapy, I started collecting “Dad” jokes for clients and have included some of my favorites.

Warning: Extreme corniness about to follow!!!

  • What made the sick bird get better? Tweatment.
  • What did the muffler say before it went to sleep? I’m exhausted.
  • A skeleton walked into McDonalds and ordered an ice tea and a mop.
  • What do you call money that holds a grudge? Petty cash.
  • Why was the hipster not drinking his coffee? He was waiting for it to be cool.
  • What did one math book say to the other? I’ve got problems.
  • Did you hear the guy who wrote the “Hokey Pokey” died? They had a heck of a time getting him into the casket.
  • What do you call a cow you are unable to milk? A milk dud.
  • Why don’t plants like math? It gives them square roots.
  • Where can you find a turtle with no legs? Right where you left him.
  • What do you call a cow that has given birth? Decaffeinated.
  • Why doesn’t the sun go to college? It already has a billion degrees.
  • What lays at the bottom of the ocean and twitches? A nervous wreck.
  • I ordered a chicken and an egg from Amazon. I’ll let you know.

If Dad jokes aren’t your thing, that’s ok. They aren’t for everyone. Upon researching humor, I found varying opinions on just how many different types of humor there are. Some claim there are less than a dozen while others claim there are over three dozen types of humor. Either way, there is something for everyone. The following is a brief list of the most common types of humor with some examples of where to find them:

  1. lf you like physical comedy, you can find it on shows like Laverne and Shirley, The Pink Panther, or The Three Stooqes.
  2. lf you like self-deprecating comedy, you can find it with comedians such as Jim Gaffigan or Louis CK.
  3. lf you like surreal or absurd comedy, you can find it with comedians like Andy Richter or Patton Oswald.
  4. lf you like Improvisational comedy, you can find it with a comedian like Robin Williams or on a show like Whose line is it, anyways?
  5. lf you like Wit/word play comedy you can find it with “Dad jokes” or with a comedian like George Carlin.
  6.  If you like topical comedy, you can find it on a show such as Saturday Niqht Live or with comedians like Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon.
  7. If you like observational comedy, you can find it with comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Dane Cook, or Chris Rock
  8. lf you are a fan of dark humor, you can find it with a comedian such as Dave Chappelle or on shows like Arrested Development and It’s always sunny in Philadelphia.

Whatever your humor preference may be, there are several types of humor for you to access to get a better state of mental and physical health.

For some, humor can be a very life line to deal with extremely difficult and dark circumstances. One year, I was called for grand jury duty. We would hear a case and then vote as a group if we felt the case should go to a grand jury. The cases were detailed and presented by first responders. Some cases were silly and ended up being misdemeanors. Many of the cases, however, were regarding child abuse. First responders would describe horrible details to us about the cases while they cracked jokes. They must have seen the looks on our faces as they said, “Humor is the only way we can deal with calls we go on”. It took a bit for this information to sink in to all the jurors. We then realized in order for them to do their job, which was awful, they needed to make dark jokes about it to lighten the horrific nature of events to which they are required to respond. One first responder put it well. “We either laugh or we’ll cry”. If first responders can utilize humor to deal with the very dark circumstances they deal with, then we can also utilize humor to deal with our life circumstances.

Whether you are simply having a bad day where everything is going wrong, struggling with depression, or working a job that is emotionally and mentally draining, humor can be part of your positive coping arsenal. Watching something humorous or listening to a humorous comedian can be very satisfying, giving you a respite from a long day where maybe not everything went well for you. You can escape for a moment, forget your problems, enjoy your life, and reap the health and psychological benefits associated with humor and laughing.

Humor is good for the mind, heart, body and soul. Humor very well could be chicken soup for the soul.

How many other things can we say that about? Even the Bible touts the benefit of humor. In Proverbs 17:22 it says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine. but a crushed spirit dries up the bones”. So, go ahead, laugh, watch something funny, listen to a comedian, tell a Dad joke. And who knows, a laugh a day may even keep the doctor away!

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