How Humor Can Heal: Yourself And Your Relationships

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happy couple laughing

You're probably thinking, "This better be funny!"

Though I hope aspects will be entertaining, the article explores the layers, meaning, and benefits of humor. Focus is on opportunities to use humor for healing yourself and people in relationships that count ─ the individuals you value, enjoy, and like, where caring and attention are mutual.

As you’ve probably noticed already, what’s considered humorous varies with age, culture, and gender.

RELATED: How To Find Laughter & Humor In Every Situation

The benefits of humor come from the material of everyday life.

We can find comedy in life's ups and downs, as well as its paradoxes and uncertainties.

Mood, receptivity, and levels of trust and attentiveness also mingle in the stews of communicating and relating. As widely talented writer and comedian Steve Allen said, "Nothing is better than the unintended humor of reality."

Since generalizing about what’s funny or humorous rarely matches everyone’s preferences, let’s continue with what can be useful and interesting to you.

You’ll find opportunities here to explore how you can apply and adapt humor for healing, barriers to expression, and how to further develop and show your own sense of humor.

Film director Sidney Lumet said all good work is self-revelatory. I think that applies to humor, as well.

In the process of appreciating your own and others’ style and influence, you’ll get additional insights. Such awareness, exposure, and experiences can have healing properties ─ that’s in addition to the fun and adventure of authentically freshening your self-presentation and deepening connections with others.

The material for being humorous is at your fingertips.

Just notice how most comedians weave in themes and stories from their lives, others’ behavior, and life’s routines. They also call attention to the absurdities and contradictions of life.

Combining both the writing of a humorist and performance of a comedian, an example is Rachel Bloom’s writing and acting in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and her latest book.

From the past, another example is Mae West’s wordplay about herself. A talented actress, singer, and playwright into older age, her stock in trade (so to speak) was double entendres. On her chastity, she said, "I used to be Snow White, but I drifted."

Some students of gender-based humor think that men's approach tends toward making fun of others. Maybe that's why the end of a joke is called a punch line. In modern versions, punching up relates to jokes targeted at entitled or privileged people; punching down to people of lower rank.

Whether or not you buy the idea of separate male and female styles of humor or considering who is targeted, the pendulum swing between what tickles some and offends others can keep humor hanging in the balance.

On one side is political correctness, which may inhibit creativity and blunt reality. On the other is cruelty and insensitivity, even less attractive.

Wherever you swing, humor is not only in the eye of the beholder, but also excites different responses depending on spirit, context, and participants.

The first record I have about my interest in humor is a speech for an undergraduate class. Even then, I didn't find funny what I considered mean, predictable, and slapstick humor such as The Three Stooges.

That early academic analysis taught me how parsing out what makes something funny or amusing can quickly squelch the seemingly lighthearted.

For example, whether a spontaneous guffaw or sly or shy smile, the physical response can mask deeper meanings.

The guffaw can be a blast of aggression that makes people and situations less scary by making fun of them. Freud considered "tendentious jokes" indicators of insufficient repression of fears.

That a joke is sometimes called a "gag" is another hint that the punch line may block someone’s response or even access to the unconscious.

This unattributed pun relates to Freud's insights about humor: "A Freudian slip is when you say one thing, but mean your mother."

Poet and playwright Oscar Wilde's quip takes the theme further. "All women become like their mothers. That is the tragedy. No man does. That's his."

In a similar vein, certain kinds of humor are considered dark, such as with Lenny Bruce or Ricky Gervais.

Beware that humor may be a weapon that is wielded or to avoid. It could embarrass those who are the "butt" of it, belittle a situation or person, or expose a weakness.

Considering physical indicators of humor such as the range of related facial reactions as well as laughs, smiles, guffaws, and giggles, you may not be surprised that the modern word humor emerged from four fluids (humors) of the body in medieval physiology. Whichever fluid dominated in a person indicated both character and health.

Even then, the tendency to reduce people to neat categories limited appreciation of their range and complexity. As you’ll see below, associations with those fluids expose some of the meanings and opportunities of humor today. The four humors were blood, phlegm, choler, and black bile.

Humor can spark energy, ease difficulties, prompt the release of difficult emotions, highlight issues, and provide nutrition.

As you wish, jot down your ideas for using humor in any of the following situations.

Examples of how you can strengthen or heal yourself using humor.

Assert yourself with charming confidence (“The last time — perhaps! — I goofed was …”)

Reduce stress by distracting yourself from discomfort and pain (“There I go again.")

Demonstrate resilience to recoup from a difficult situation (“I can name three ways I’ll avoid that in the future!”)

Offset darker feelings such as fear and anxiety (Ask yourself: “What’s the funniest aspect of my fear?”)

Show your own value as well as ideas and products (“Not to boast, but…” or “Here’s an idea; or not!”)

RELATED: People With A Dark Sense Of Humor Are More Intelligent, Says Study

Examples of how humor improves and contributes to healing relationships.

What kind of humor does this person like or express (to get clues about what makes them tick)?

How can I express my playfulness and pleasure while in a person’s company (attract people to you with your liveliness, appeal, and wit)?

What disarming truth will I mention that would take us to greater openness (endear yourself to others without antagonizing or annoying)?

What associations or examples would connect this person to their own insights and opportunities (implanting memories, ideas, and images for motivation and remembrance)?

Mention or explore some shared experiences from the past or the future that are fun (as humorist and pianist Victor Borge said, "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.")

Barriers to expressing your sense of humor.

Most of the options above for using the power of humor are probably within your capacity to apply or develop according to your own values and situation.

Choose two or three of these sometimes overlapping tendencies from the list below that might get in your way:

Fear of self-exposure
Lack of curiosity
Harsh self-judgment
Preference for the predictable and known
Unwillingness to make mistakes or risk avoidance

If any of the tendencies you choose makes you feel hesitant to express your sense of humor, let Oscar Wilde inspire you: "Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes."

Try healing one tendency by working through it using your sense of humor.

In fact, could you name any actions that would help you grow, stretch, and enjoy life without some risk of making mistakes? You may have noted that tight asses aren't cheeky enough to take advantage of the opportunity to fail.

Play with and expand your own styles of humor. How would you describe your own style of humor?

In my case, I don't tell jokes, in part because I find many of them lame and in part because I can't remember them — especially the punch lines.

Since I love the hunt for the meaning of words and prefer wit to slapstick humor, puns are one of my favorite forms of humor. Under receptive circumstances, I make them naturally, sometimes unaware until I hear them come out of my mouth, as in ham on wry.

I also get laughs with spontaneous facial expressions and other body languages, of which I’m not always aware.

So, my humor is like a Pop-Tart. The pleasant center is covered by the bland dough of everyday life. Toast it adequately until it jumps out, palatable and sometimes tasty — depending on who’s munching.

To express and enjoy your own style, explore:

What do you do naturally that elicits laughs? (Ask others about what they notice about your sense of humor too.)

When do you tend to feel funny, lighthearted, or playful? (Name a few situations.)

With whom are you willing to let loose? (For example, when do you feel safe being outrageous, especially clever, or a little nutty?)

What and who do you find funny? (Where and when do your smiles and laughs emerge?)

Name one way you will tempt out your sense of humor. (Incentives and situations?)

If you still feel a little unsure about the benefits of humor, compare your own opinion about how you could be funny with what others say.

Engage a few people in conversation about the nature of humor and being funny to see where that takes you. Then relax and be receptive to opportunities as they occur.

As you proceed, notice the creative tension among spontaneity, risk, and predictability that comes as you practice and express your sense of humor.

Build bridges between being true to your authentic humor and appreciating others' sensitivities and funny bones. This takes time, not to mention trial and error.

But you probably understand or sense more than you imagine if you've been attending to your own and others' vulnerabilities, needs, interests, and soulfulness.

Seek situations such as improv training and watching comedians to learn about and practice being witty, amusing, funny, playful, outrageous, lighthearted, or ironic — whatever your style.

For example, look into online improv for business training. And there’s always the bathroom mirror and your smartphone for private experiments!

Given current constraints in work and social life especially, even interactions online and on the phone provide chances to practice.

You don't have to always be serious to be taken seriously.

Think about the leaders and popular folk you respect who use humor and observe what they do. Ask yourself what and how you will learn from others while developing and demonstrating your own style.

In the process, find ways to have fun; if you are enjoying yourself, that will be communicated to others.

Stand up and out.

The work and attention involved in expressing your sense of humor is a good way to keep your world and yourself fresh, vital, and healthier.

Since the process often occurs by pairing the known with the unexpected, take advantage of that surprise as many of The New Yorker magazine cartoons do. Make the leap and reap the delight of encountering and expressing another aspect of yourself.

Former Saturday Review editor and professor Norman Cousins, who wrote about his own experiences with the healing power of humor in Anatomy of an Illness, noted that, “The skills of exaggeration, reversal, association, spontaneity, juxtaposition, and paradox are all involved in creativity and humor."

In The Healing Heart, he talked about antidotes to panic and helplessness.

You may not know what you'll find, but if it's more of your true self, the experience will improve your quality of life. As you feel adventuresome, experiment with how you can use humor to heal yourself and your relationships.

Cultivate fresher connections with people you know and would like to know. You don't have to be a clown to be funny.

Sometimes being humorous is just a matter of appreciating another side of reality and sharing it.

Even with the complexity of human and cultural interaction, the varieties of humor tell a great deal about the range of what's valued and what's feared.

They provide keys to understanding differences and depths, for yourself as well as others on the paths to using humor to heal.

RELATED: 125 Corny Jokes So Cheesy They're Really Funny

Ruth Schimel Ph.D. is a career and life management consultant and author of the Choose Courage series on Amazon. Obtain the bonus first chapter of the upcoming, Happiness and Joy in Work: Preparing for Your Future. Use your invitation to a free consultation as well on her website.