When I had my comic memoir published by an award-winning independent press in 2008, I thought it would be the pinnacle of my professional writing career. But after my publisher went bankrupt one year later, taking with him most of my dreams, that celebratory moment turned into one of despair.
Standing in our basement, looking at the five big crates of unsold books we were left with after the experience, my husband wondered aloud what we were going to do with them. I said to him: “We can always make a bonfire and toast marshmallows.” Suddenly, the tension seemed to lift.
I firmly believe my ability to find the humor in upsetting circumstances like this one has helped me to rebound from innumerable setbacks. Humor is, in fact, a free resource that has greater rejuvenative powers than anything we might be tempted to buy to cheer us up. For depressed people in particular, laughter is at once a defense against a seemingly indefensible world and a safety valve.
The therapeutic value of laughter has been recognized for centuries, but it was first popularized in the United States in the 1970s, when author Norman Cousins recounted his experience overcoming a painful case of arthritis by watching funny television programs like “Candid Camera” and Marx Brothers movies. In his book about the experience, “Anatomy of an Illness,” Cousins reported that ten minutes of laughter provided him with two hours of anesthetic-free pain relief.
Today, humor therapy is a recognized discipline in the field of psychology, and many practitioners offer advice on how best to incorporate laughter into our lives when we are going through difficult times. But we don’t even have to turn to professionals for guidance on this matter—we are surrounded by free humor everyday. Not only in the typical entertainment fare, but in small moments—walking with a friend who makes us laugh, observing a child’s innocence, or a pet’s curiosity. Humor is everywhere. We just have to train ourselves to be open to it.
I once interviewed a clinical psychologist and humor therapist for an article I was writing on counseling couples going through home renovation projects—a very stressful circumstance indeed. He offered tips on dealing with the experience, which I think can be applied to many others stressors we face in life.
One of his main suggestions was to work with a partner or a friend as a stress buster—someone with whom to share everything absurd or silly that happened during the course of a day’s frazzling events. He also suggested keeping a written log of these moments and sharing them with their stress buddies at the end of each week. The positive affect on overall outlook, he said, is tremendous.
Another tip he offered the couples he counseled was to always keep a humorous moment from their lives in their memory to access when they were under a great deal of pressure. Just the simple act of remembering something that made them laugh or smile did wonders to relieve stress in the present moment, he said.
I have since followed this psychologist’s advice, and it has helped. Now, my stress-busting partner is either my husband or a close childhood friend. And whenever I am in a trying situation, I remember the time I was driving with my mother on a highway lost and she screamed: “Can’t you ask someone for directions?” (I remind you, we were on a highway!).
I believe laughter is a critical component of a life well-lived and is the main reason why couples and friends form and stay in relationships. It can do wonders for everyone, in any circumstance. Even for those of us who have seen their hopes of being a best-selling author dashed.