"A merry heart is a good medicine and a broken spirit dries the bones.” (Proverbs: Chapter 17, Verse 22)

The health benefits of humor and a good laugh have long been hypothesized, and recent research has substantiated these assumptions. Norman Cousins, who researched the biochemistry of emotions, was diagnosed with a debilitating and painful illness late in life. In his best-selling book, Anatomy of an Illness, he related how ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and provided him with at least two hours of pain-free sleep. Studies have shown that laughter not only boosts the immune system, but also causes stress hormones to plummet. Dr. William Fry, a noted laughter researcher, has stated that laughing a hundred times a day is the physical equivalent of doing 10 minutes of rowing. In a similar vein, laughter has been referred to as “internal jogging.” If you are still not convinced about the health benefits of laughter, consider the longevity of some of the famous comedians of the 20th century. George Burns and Bob Hope were both centenarians. Sid Caesar and Milton Berle were both older than 90 years old when they died.

In 1928, Sigmund Freud wrote a paper entitled “Humor." He described humor as an emotionally healthy way to deal with stress. It should be noted that Freud was not advocating belittling others by means of aggressive jokes, but was suggesting that one can transcend a difficult situation by trying to make light of it. This is often referred to as “gallows humor.” When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they proceeded to burn over 25,000 volumes of books that they deemed “un-German.” Among these were the books of Sigmund Freud. Reportedly, Freud quipped that the destruction of his scholarly works demonstrated how far civilization had progressed. He stated: “In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are merely burning my books.”

We can use similar tactics in the course of dealing with the minor everyday nuisances. It is sometimes helpful to try to make light of a troublesome situation. For example, if a businessman were to approach his car on a Monday morning only to find that it has a flat tire, he has a choice. He can either curse his bad luck and feel miserable for the rest of the morning, or remark in a sarcastic and self-effacing manner: “Well, this week is getting off to a grand start. Maybe this would be the right time to ask for a raise and a larger office.”

Ironic events are a common occurrence and can provide humorous pleasure if we take cognizance of them. For example, during Ronald Reagan’s movie career days, he auditioned for a role in which he would portray the President of the United States. The producer, however, did not view Mr. Reagan as looking presidential and therefore denied him the part. With a little introspection, we will see that our own life is replete with ironic situations, and with some courage, we can laugh at them.

Reframing a situation or exaggerating the degree of the difficulty can, in some instances, provide a humorous solution to a problem. For example, suppose there is a nor’easter on the day of the big picnic and you and your friends are sulking around the house. That is the time to remember that although we may have no way to control the weather, we are able to control how we react to it. As the thunder is crashing and the rain is pouring down, try gazing towards the sky, and drolly exclaiming to your companions: “I think the sun is trying to come out.”

Creating a “humor folder” can be beneficial. Collect jokes, ironic stories, comic strips, and quotations that you find amusing and keep them in a folder. Refer to it whenever you need a mood lift. One of my favorite cartoons in my humor collection is a drawing of astronauts walking on the moon. They come across a female sprawled out on the ground, and one astronaut exclaims to the other: “Oh my G-d, it’s Alice Kramden!”

Keep your eyes and ears open for humor. For example, I never know how to respond when the receptionist at a doctor’s office greets me with the seemingly obligatory: “Hi Joel. How are you?” I can’t help but think to myself, that if one has an appointment to see an MD for a medical problem, that question is rather absurd. If you see a restaurant displaying a sign that reads: “Under Strict Rabbinical Supervision,” do you wonder if there is another store somewhere displaying a sign that reads: “Under Lax Rabbinical Supervision”?

The seeds of laughter lay in thoughts such as these.

Although laughter and smiling will not help us solve our problems, a humorous attitude can help us view our circumstances from a different perspective. If you are feeling sad and cannot think of anything even remotely humorous, remember, research has shown that just the act of smiling can trigger a more pleasant and happy state.


Dr. Joel Verstaendig is a psychologist with over 30 years of clinical experience. His doctoral dissertation focused on humor. He is an engaging and entertaining public speaker and has presented to various types of audiences. Perhaps the most daunting of these was performing in front of an audience at a comedy club. He can be reached at: drjoelv@aol.com or 516-933-6196. Visit his website: www.drjoelvpsychology.com