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Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.
It’s early 1916 and World War I has been raging for nearly two years.
This is a cataclysm unlike any other in history. The advance of industrial and military technologies and horrors of trench warfare are producing unprecedented levels of carnage and destruction—millions are dead and thousands are dying every day from chemicals, fire, shells, bullets, bombs, famine, and disease.
Troops, medics, and nurses on the front lines are surrounded by piles of decaying corpses and chunks of rotting flesh. At night, they sleep to a symphony of machine guns, mortars, and artillery on a bed of their dead comrades strewn about the floor.
And then there are the rats swarming everywhere. Well-fed rats that grow as large as cats, that spread disease-ridden fleas and lice, that can eat a wounded man if he can’t defend himself.
How can you maintain your marbles under such conditions, let alone your morale? What can sustain your sanity, let alone your spirit?
For many, humor is the only answer, the armament as essential as their rifles or bayonets, the last psychological defense. By laughing at what they fear most and raising two middle fingers to the Grim Reaper, ordinary people endure extraordinary hardship.
Pilots joke about joining the “sizzle brigade,” soldiers bleat like sheep as they march toward German machine guns, and fighters on both sides give shells cutesy nicknames like “cook pots,” “blue cucumbers,” and “Jack Johnsons.”
“We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here” goes the song sung every day. Trench newspapers mock both the enemy and one’s own officers, politicians, and home front propaganda.
How could mere wit and insouciance save so many people from a dark descent into derangement? And how can we tap into their power to raise our spirits when the going gets tough?
To answer the first question, let’s analyze humor and laughter through the lenses of history and science, and to answer the second, let’s probe the lenses through which we view the world.
Virtually all cultures stretching back to the beginning of recorded time have known of the relationship between humor and health. The benefits of joy appear in the Bible, which states that “a cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Ancient Greek physicians prescribed visits to comedy shows to help patients heal faster. Early Native Americans used laughter as an adjunct to various types of treatment and therapy.
In later times, doctors found that humor could distract from the pain of surgery and promote recovery and treat depression and other psychiatric disorders.
Humor wasn’t considered a legitimate field of scientific study, however, until 1964, when Dr. William F. Fry, a professor of Psychology at Stanford University, suggested that mirth had tremendous potential for impacting physical and mental health.
His peers mostly ignored his assertions and denied his requests for funding, but Dr. Fry moved forward on his own steam and dime. In time, he produced landmark studies demonstrating several positive physiological mechanisms associated with laughter including the activation of muscles, elevation of heart rate, and increase in oxygen exchange (similar to the effects of exercise), as well as the release of endorphins and vasodilation.
Word spread of Dr. Fry’s discoveries, which attracted other pioneering scientists to what he was now calling gelotology (from the Greek word for laughter, gelos), and together they produced many breakthroughs.
For instance, studies conducted by Dr. Lee Berk and colleagues from Loma Linda University found that laughter lessens the negative effects of stress by reducing cortisol and catecholamine levels and boosts the immune system by increasing the production of antibodies, which protect against disease and dysfunction.
More recent research conducted by scientists at the University of Maryland Medical Center have found laughter improves blood vessel health and blood flow, which can reduce the risk of heart disease.
These findings and others help explain why laughter is strongly correlated with significant health benefits, including improved cardiovascular performance, increased pain tolerance, reduced joint inflammation, elevated mood, fear desensitization, and improved quality of life and wellbeing.
Research even shows that incorporating humor into teaching and learning environments can be transformational, reducing anxiety, stress, and tension, improving self-esteem and motivation, and increasing alertness, creativity, and class performance.
Teachers who make their students laugh also create stronger bonds with them and receive higher evaluations, which significantly raises chances of academic success.
These are just a few examples from the growing body of evidence that joy is a powerful but often overlooked force immediately available to any of us who wish to uncork it. It’s a primal, instinctive, and universal basic emotion that creates positive feelings and softens the impact of stress.
What’s more, we don’t have to wait for something to tickle us—we can “fake it ‘til we make it.” Find something—anything—to laugh at, and the constructive process begins.
And before you scoff at the idea that it’s so straightforward, consider this: If soldiers on the battlefront of an unthinkably gruesome war could find comedy in the absurdity of their existence, we can too.
One reason humor is such an effective way to defuse stress is it allows us to distance ourselves from threatening circumstances and reappraise them in more positive, growth-oriented ways. Research also shows that people with a good sense of humor find more meaning in stressful events and perceive them as challenging rather than menacing.
In other words, you can use humor and laughter to become more resilient. The more you chuckle at the vicissitudes of life, no matter how unfair, underserved, or unreasonable they may seem, the less sway they have over you.
As the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations:
Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.
When I first read that line, the message resonated with me but I struggled to feel it when confronted with highly destructive people, actions, and forces.
For example, some time ago, I invested a significant amount of money in a promising residential real estate venture being organized by a longtime “friend” of my family’s.
On paper, it looked like a home run: it had a prime location, buyers were already trying to put down deposits, and banks were already lining up to underwrite the project.
As time went on, however, the plans kept changing. The development got bigger and bigger, requiring more and more capital purportedly for more land, staff, contractors, and services.
As the financial demands continued to grow with no clear end in sight, so did suspicion among the investors.
Eventually, several filed lawsuits, and we all learned the operation was a sham. The developer had embezzled much of the money raised and never intended on building anything. What’s more, because I was a relatively small player in the game, there was little chance I’d receive any restitution.
Then, to rub salt in the wound, the founder shrugged my loss off as collateral damage. “Let this be a lesson in chasing after easy money,” he said.
The whole fiasco stung. This crook didn’t need my cash and knew there were many other productive and meaningful things I could’ve done with it. He only took the money because he could.
And so I was upset. A part of me didn’t want to turn the other cheek. A part of me didn’t want to look past the dishonesty, disdain, and depravity, not to mention the economic and emotional costs.
Fortunately for me, I have a funny bone and it won out. After cooling off, I had a good laugh. At the predicament. At him. At myself. What a ridiculous experience with a clownish parasite. A pure comedy of errors.
Even though I had “every reason” to seethe, I split my sides instead. And I no longer felt harmed.
“So other people hurt me?” Aurelius said. “That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine.”
Such is the power of what scientists refer to as self-enhancing humor—using humor to relieve stress and foster a cheerful outlook in the face of adversity.
So try not to take yourself or your circumstances too seriously, even when the chips are down. You never know how your good spirits and tenacity might pay off as time goes on.
In my case, losing that money not only did teach me important lessons about due diligence but also allowed me to meet several other successful entrepreneurs and investors who have since helped me grow my businesses in various ways.
There’s a Chinese fable titled “We’ll See” that expresses this message beautifully:
A farmer had a horse, and one day, it ran away.
His neighbors consoled him. “I’m so sorry. This is such bad news. You must be so upset.”
The man just said, “We’ll see.”
A few days later, his horse returned with twenty wild horses in tow, and the man and his son corralled them all.
His neighbors celebrated. “Congratulations! This is such good news. You must be so happy!”
The man just said, “We’ll see.”
A few weeks later, a stallion kicked the man’s son, breaking one of his legs.
His neighbors reeled. “I’m so sorry. This is such bad news. You must be so upset.”
The man just said, “We’ll see.”
The following month, the farmer’s country went to war and drafted legions of able-bodied young men to fight their enemies. Casualties were high but didn’t include the man’s son, since the army had no use for a lame boy.
The neighbors couldn’t believe the family’s luck. “Congratulations! This is such good news. You must be so happy!”
The man just said, “We’ll see.”