The Power of Humor

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.” Mark Twain

When my dad died recently, I never thought our first reaction would be to joke about it. Mom and the four of us grown kids were on the bed with him, holding him. The hospice chaplain had just joined us. After it was obvious Dad had stopped breathing, we all felt overwhelmed and nobody could speak. Finally, the chaplain offered a short prayer and then asked if anybody had noted the time of death. I said it had been 4:10 p.m. With perfect comic timing, my brother observed, “Well, at least he waited for happy hour.”

Humor is like WD-40 for difficult moments and social situations.Everybody cracked up and the tension was broken. Happy hour had been a highly important event in my dad’s daily life. He lived for those cocktails.

An hour before Dad passed on, an old friend of the family had come by. We started telling stories about old times and ended up laughing hysterically. Dad was in the bed next to us, pretty much unconscious and close to death, but I know he was aware of all the laughter in the room. I thought it was great that he chose to go right after that.

Humor is like WD-40 for difficult moments and social situations. It reframes challenges into manageable chunks. It can change your perspective and emotional state in an instant. It’s one of the great advantages of being human instead of, say, an aardvark.

“Life is too important to be taken seriously.” Oscar Wilde

A few days after 9/11, I had to give a presentation to 200 people. Everybody had been watching television all week and were caught up in the horror and sadness. There was no way to ignore it or to talk around it. It was hanging over the room like a big black cloud. What I realized was that every person there needed, more than anything, to laugh. So I acknowledged that it had been a rough week, then surprised them by singing a couple of funny songs about taking responsibility for our lives, what we can and can’t control.

The relief was overwhelming. The laughter connected us in a huge release of emotion. We felt supported. We realized life would go on and we could still smile.

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“If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing is, stop digging.” Will Rogers

We all know that life is serious. If we forget, we can just turn on the news for five minutes and get reminded. But let me ask you this: Are you like me? Have you ever had the particular gift or talent of making life even more serious than it already is?

A few years ago my mother told me I was one of the most serious little kids she’d ever seen. I thought about that and I remembered as a kid I was a worrier. It occurred to me that I’m still a worrier, but I’ve gotten better at it. I’m a more efficient worrier now, I do it in less time. So I wrote a song about that called, “Writer’s Block: The Long-Term Positive and Negative Effects of Worry.”

It starts with me being worried about not writing, then I realize I’m worried, and feel ashamed about that. It hits me that I’m feeling ashamed about being worried, so I start to feel guilty. Then I get embarrassed that my shame could make me guilty. This is followed by getting angry at myself because I’m so immature as to be embarrassed. Then I remember how bad internalized anger is for my health, and I become afraid. As I get more fearful about what I’m doing to myself, I realize I’m getting depressed. Since all this negative emotion will probably kill me, that gives me something new to worry about. Since I don’t have long to live, I write it all down. But once I write it all down, I’ve got a new song! And everything is fine again. (This song is very popular with therapists.)

Humor is an antidote to worry. We hear a lot these days about the benefits of living in the present moment, about being in the “flow.” One thing humor and silliness do is snap us back to “Now.” Sometimes we get stuck in the past or future. The thing is, it’s okay to look at the past or future. Just don’t stare!

I saw Mel Brooks talking about this on TV. He said Socrates told us it’s good to “Know thyself.” But in Mel’s experience it’s even better to “Now thyself.” He said we need more people living in the Now instead of the past or future, living every day like it’s our last day.

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Which is why I never have any clean clothes. Who wants to do laundry on the last day? (ta dump.)

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of discussion.” Plato

Humor is an attitude, like gratitude or compassion. It can be developed.Silliness is a great way to Now thyself. But we get so busy doing our important grown-up stuff that we forget. I think it’s because our country was colonized by the Puritans. Remember them? They were so serious, the English kicked them out!

The positive side of that is here in the good U.S. of Stress, we all know how to work hard. We out-work everybody in the world. But we can have some trouble with “lightening up.” So it’s okay to practice!

Humor is an attitude, like gratitude or compassion. It can be developed. Keep a humor journal of stories and cartoons. Cultivate funny friends. Be a good laugher. A good laugh is contagious and people love to be around it. Collect funny embarrassing stories from your life and tell them. Watch a couple of your favorite sitcoms. Rent funny movies. (Norman Cousins cured himself of a fatal disease by doing this.) Buy silly gimmicks and toys from a toy store and inflict them on your friends. Be unpredictable. Find ways to inject surprise into other people’s lives. Honor silliness. Hang out with 4-year-olds. They’ll remind you how spontaneous humor bubbles up from being playful.

Some addictive people worry that if they sober up, life will be boring. That’s only because we’ve forgotten how to play. Making time for play is not only okay, it’s suspiciously healthy!

“A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men.” Roald Dahl


Greg Tamblyn is an award winning speaker-humorist-singer-songwriter who has captivated audiences with powerful material about the relationship of lifestyle, music, and laughter to effectiveness and wellness for over 20 years. Visit www.gregtamblyn.com.

This article first appeared in the March 2008 issue of The Phoenix Spirit.

Last Updated on February 17, 2021

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