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Humor and resilience

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Humor and resilience

Charlie Chaplin once said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.”
Resilient people—people who have overcome adversity—have long known the unique value of humor.

Drs. Steven J. Wolin and Sybil Wolin note the connection between creativity and humor in people who are resilient. In The Resilient Self, they say about creativity and humor respectively that they “turn nothing into something and something into nothing.” They observe that you’re not being a victim when you’re laughing about your situation and creating new ways of being.

Humor and resilience

When we notice the humor in a situation, we are in an observant role. It takes a little bit of psychological distance in order to see the humor in ourselves and our circumstances. We are standing beside our painful situation when we can laugh at it. This can give us a chance to stick a pin in negative emotions and choose actions that are coping and positive. It is hard to wallow or ruminate in negative emotions when you’re seeing the absurdity in your situation.

At the same time, humor isn’t exactly escapist; it doesn’t deny the awfulness of adversity. For example, people who have shared a difficult experience often share a “gallows humor”: jokes and wit about their suffering that are only appropriate to be told by and among those who have shared the adversity. This in-group humor can help acknowledge and dispel negative emotions and strengthen social support among people who have come through trauma and challenges. It can also be a way for people who have survived a difficult experience to mentor and encourage those who are still going through it.

Humor has helped people through some of the darkest times imaginable. As psychiatrist Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning about surviving Nazi concentration camps: “Humor was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human makeup, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”

The Resilient Self, Steven J. Wolin and Sybil Wolin
Humor and life stress: Antidote to adversity. Lefcourt, H. M., et al.
"Coping humour, stress, and cognitive appraisals." Kuiper, N. A., et al. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 25(1).
"Humor, coping with stress, self-concept, and psychological well-being." Martin, R. A., et al. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 6(1).
"Exposure to humor before and after an unpleasant stimulus." Cann, A., et al. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 13(2).
"Does humor moderate the effects of experimentally-induced stress?" Newman, M. G., et al. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 18(2).

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