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The how and why of humor and stress:


Here’s a little science article (toward the end of this piece) for you - a very little. I thought it would be good to include something to help the intellectual side of us breathe in the idea that it’s not disrespectful to laugh when bad things are happening around us. I personally know that “black humor” got me through many tough moments in the aftermath of my son’s brain injury. Even he would joke - eventually - about aspects of his status as a survivor of brain injury, and “a blind guy”... “Mom, I’m brain injured, not stupid.” Or when he bowls three - or four! - strikes in a row (really!) he’ll mutter, “Not bad for a blind guy!”

Zack is completely blind in one eye, and partially blind in his other eye: he has little peripheral vision, and no depth perception, but he navigates like a sighted person, and insists on bowling. And he laughs, a lot. God bless him. These days, I need laughter. I find that sitcoms are old-hat, mundane and not really very funny. So I channel surf, looking for something to entertain me when I’ve run out of steam for the day. Even the late night talk show hosts are in overdrive trying to be funny.

What is it about humor that makes it so essential as a coping mechanism? Here's that bit of science I promised you: in short, laughter triggers the feel-good hormones, and offsets the grim reality of things. OK, we get that. But what does that have to do with mindfulness? It has to do with the first step in any mindfulness practice: Noticing, without judging, what is really going on in the moment. When we do, we can take a breath (literally) - and inquire about our options. Then, we take action. When we do that, we can heal the breach. Feel the wholeness in the experience. We come full circle to the present moment. So, it’s a practice: we escape some of the discomfort of the moment with a mindful practice that becomes second nature to us. I call this the NOAH Method: Noticing; Options; Action; Healing.

When we pause to Notice, we are practicing being aware of the present moment, and that can take us off auto-pilot and into a more observing, non-judging state of mind. When we breathe that in, we can then think about what our Options are in the moment: you know, that split second when you have a choice of hand gestures to use at the driver who just poked your road rage button. Most of us are not choosing a papal blessing move right then… Instead, we can opt to breathe, get some distance, and regain perspective. And that is another component of humor: it gives us a different perspective. We can think differently, emit a wry smile, perhaps. And we access a different part of the brain when we do. Our magnificent brains rally to the moment, and the next thing you know, we’re laughing - sometimes at circumstances, and oftentimes at ourselves.

Pretty soon, we notice that we actually feel better because we didn’t launch into a tirade. We chose to Act: we laughed. We’re safe! I like to remind myself that Noah encouraged people and animals to board the Ark before the flood. Don’t wait until you’re in a rage, or in despair. Practice and build a mindful habit. Look for the humor, and breathe. Breathe in the suffering you see, and breathe out compassion, loving kindness - and laughter. Practice the laughing game with loved ones at home: that silly little thing where one person starts with one “Hah!” Then two, then three, and pretty soon, genuine laughter ensues. Do it. Your brain will thank you for it, and the pizza, cookies and ice cream will be around the house for another day, and not around your waist. Here’s to “benign moral violations.” :)


Here’s the science article I promised:

Peter McGraw, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, director of the Humor Research Lab, and co-author of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. Something he and colleagues have established is that humor can emerge from ‘benign moral violations.’ These are threats to world views that still manage to come off as harmless — programs like Curb Your Enthusiasm. ‘The things that are bad in our life can also be good fodder for comedy,’ McGraw tells us. ‘The act of making jokes is about transforming these violations and transforming them into something that is laugh-worthy. It allows us the opportunity to see situations differently.’ ‘The secondary benefit’ he explains, ‘is that we in turn laugh about it and experience positive emotions. Studies show that when we hear a joke that works for our particular sense of humor, our brain likes it. When a punchline hits, the brain’s reward system lights up and the brain releases “feelgood” neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.’

“ ‘What allows violations to come off as funny is a certain amount of psychological distance, and this is mediated by four dimensions: spatial, temporal, social, and mental. McGraw explains that psychological distance is what psychologists call a moderator— it can either turn up or turn down an effect. So, if we’re thinking about the feral hog situation, living in New York likely makes the concept of a hog much funnier than if you live in Texas. That’s connecting to the ‘spatial’ dimension. It also nudges the ‘mental’ dimension as well, which works off the idea that hypothetical events aren’t as threatening as real ones. Things that seem absurd are immediately encoded as unreal — even if it’s actually something that is real,’ McGraw says. ‘That can help enhance the likelihood that it’s seen as amusing.’ “

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