Does humor have to fit into the current evidence-based medical model in order to be accepted by the medical community?
Dr. Goodman: I hope not. With regard to research, I hope that a common sense of humor can prevail. After all, we know intuitively that laughter feels good and humor can provide a needed respite for daily concerns. Erma Bombeck explains it this way: “When humor goes, there goes civilization.” For those in need of proof, George Vaillant, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of a longitudinal study, has identified a sense of humor as an important ingredient for coping that contributes to aging happily and well. According to Dr. Vaillant, the 64year NIA-funded study teased out seven predictors that if adhered to before age 50, can lead to good physical and mental health in old age. These include body weight, exercise, education, no cigarettes, no alcohol, positive marital relationship, and coping styles. As these predictors these can be changed for the better, Dr. Vaillant suggests that a successful old age may lie not so much in the stars and our genes but in us. The pleasure Dr. Sobel refers to, however, is taking good care of oneself by taking a siesta, laughing at a funny movie, talking to a friend, and helping others. He has been known to say that these are just small daily pleasures, but they can measurably improve your health. Dr. Fry: Well said. It takes courage and good sense to promote humor.
Is it possible to develop a sense of humor, or it is something that is innate to a person?
Dr. Goodman: I asked a similar question of Steve Allen when I interviewed him for our LAUGHING MATTERS magazine, and his response was that when it comes to humor, we are all born with a genetic ceiling and floor but it is what we do with our lives that determines whether we end up on the ceiling or floor. In other words, any mere mortal can develop, nurture, grow a sense of humor. We may not all become an Erma Bombeck or Bill Cosby, but we can each use humor in different, simple, risk-free ways on our own stages of life. One of the key ingredients for humor is the ability to be childlike. Having a childlike perspective is different from childish behavior. We can learn a great deal from our children if we are open to their teachings. The next time you find yourself in a pickle or a tight spot, ask yourself, “How would an 8-year old see this situation?”
The event can often be reframed into a laughing matter or at least an amused one that is not so loaded and much easier to handle. No one else has to be in on this show because it all takes place in the privacy and safety of one’s mind. There is no risk of embarrassment or judgment. A childlike perspective can be a mature, adult coping mechanism that keeps us young in mind, body, and spirit. The next time you are in the middle of a stress or a mess, ask yourself, “How would my favorite comedian see the situation?” Try to reframe the circumstance using a proven humorist as an internal ally. Keep a humor notebook. Every night or once a week or on even days, recall one thing that made you laugh or an amusing incident during the day. It can be a notebook or just a note jotted down on the calendar. On the odd days or bad days, past entries can be reread to reinvigorate your humorous side. This is another way of developing one’s comic vision. This concept can be taken into staff meetings, too. Open the meeting by asking what humorous or silly incidents happened during the past week. Why not use this approach with patients too? Ask about and share an amusing anecdote or observation. A similar approach is to give the patient a cartoon that touches on the medical concern or personal problem being faced. In other words, help the patient to view the tragedy or problem in a less painful and more playful way.