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The Hidden Power of Humor

laughing ape Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” Despite the buffoonish imagery that comes to mind when one considers the joker, the clown or the pie-in-the-face comedian, humor is more than mere silliness. It is an advanced intellectual means of developing new perspectives and coping with extreme circumstances.

A maltreated animal has two potential responses to an abusive master: attack to stop the abuse, or cower/flee to avoid it. He cannot disarm the bully with a witty remark or ironically imitate his master behind his back for his own amusement. One of the first government actions in Nazi Germany was the establishment of a law against treacherous attacks on the state and party that made anti-Nazi humor an act of treason, and there was a reason for this. Research has shown that humor is the most effective means of preventing the indoctrination of brainwashing.

Used as both a shield and a weapon, humor has the power to soothe the most wounded and threaten the most evil. These qualities speak to its inherent potential – a potential that has not yet been entirely tapped or even recognized. Holocaust survivor Emil Fackenheim said, “We kept our morale through humor,” and many other survivors of the Holocaust, POW camps, torture and abuse have shared his sentiment. The stories of these survivors and findings of modern medical research support the notion that humor is an extremely effective tool for managing our advanced awareness and for creating new perspectives to cope with otherwise unbearable environments or circumstances.

Evidence for the direct benefits of humor lie in studies of the body’s chemical reaction to laughter. Among other things, laughter has been shown to reduce stress, boost the immune system and enhance brain chemistry through the release of serotonin and endorphins. Many popular antidepressants target the neurotransmitter serotonin by either blocking its reuptake or increasing production, but one can “self-medicate” using one’s own serotonin supply by watching a funny movie, going to a comedy show or playing a fun game. For the rejected lover or laid off worker, this self-induced boost of serotonin activates a neurochemical reaction that enhances their ability to tolerate the stress response and think creatively of coping options. Humor is a very effective means of dealing with overwhelming emotion and taking control of a situation. Hunter “Patch” Adams, the physician portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie bearing his name, continues to use laughter as a primary tool in his treatment of patients, to great success. He is just one example of many who have witnessed and reported first-hand accounts of how essential humor is to both physical and emotional health.

one way street sign pointing in both directions It has been said that tragedy occurs where the tree, instead of bending, breaks. Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama professor who recently shot three colleagues to death and wounded three others, has frequently been referred to as serious, intense and humorless. She clearly had the intellect to perform at the highest levels of society, but not the tools to cope with the related stresses. Had she taken the time to develop the tool that nature gave her for dealing with that stress, a sense of humor, her three colleagues might still be alive today. Many people have found ways to laugh off much worse things than being denied tenure, and the skill is one that is within us all.

Whereas professors teach us what has been written by other serious academics, comedians tell us what is going on in the world around us through a first-hand account that we can immediately identify with and understand. Comedic news programs such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report owe their phenomenal success to the common desire to hear the truth and face the world, but in tolerable terms. The comedian is not afraid to talk about the fears and concerns that most people try hard to conceal or deny. By not only bringing them into the open but also laughing at and minimizing them, the comedian puts himself and his audience in control and the concealed fears dissipate in the shared light of day.

We have all heard of the “Way of the Warrior” and the “Way of the Buddha,” and we live the “Way of the Professional,” the “Way of the Academic,” the “Way of the Spouse,” the “Way of the Parent,” etc. But for those looking for an easier and more fun path to a happier, healthier life, the “Way of the Comedian” could be the way to go. To those who avoid comedic opportunities in an effort to preserve a reputation as a serious professional, Wittgenstein said, “Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness.” Widely regarded as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, he speaks words of wisdom.

Some famous individuals who shared this perspective are quoted below:

A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life. --William Arthur Ward

You can turn painful situations around through laughter. If you can find humor in anything, even poverty, you can survive it.
--Bill Cosby

There is no defense against adverse fortune which is so effectual as an habitual sense of humor.
--Thomas W. Higginson

The more I live, the more I think that humor is the saving sense.
--Jacob August Riis

Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.
--Francis Bacon

If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.
--Mohandas Gandhi

Humor is mankind's greatest blessing.
--Mark Twain

A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It's jolted by every pebble on the road.
--Henry Ward Beecher

About The Author
Nichole Force has a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Loyola Marymount University and is a member of Mensa, the high-IQ society. She believes laughter is the best medicine and studied improvisational comedy at the world famous Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles and sketch comedy at the ACME Comedy Theatre in Hollywood. Nichole is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and comedy club reviewer for the Los Angeles Examiner. She is writing a book called The Hidden Power of Humor, to be published later this year.

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