This month’s blog looks at humour and how it can be used to reduce anxiety and overwhelm. I’m certainly guilty of taking myself and life far too seriously much of the time. With the endless responsibilities and goals we have each day it’s no wonder we loose ourselves in it all and start to believe that it’s the end of the world if we don’t get it all done. I’m one of the worse to want to hide under the desk when my head is full of thoughts and I’m feeling harassed with the amount I have to do! Reminding ourselves to lighten up and relax our tense muscles is a great way to stop the spiral of anxiety before it drags us down.
Humour and well-being
Research tells us that having a sense of humour is correlated to well-being. To move people from languishing to flourishing is a key part of positive psychology’s ambition. Humour is one of the character strengths within the VIA strengths indicator, yet there has only more recently been an interest across the research field in understanding how humour can play an active role in well-being.
Those who naturally have a sense of humour don’t take themselves too seriously, and are better at rebounding back from challenges. It appears to be a part of a resilient personality. This makes sense when we think of humour as a strength that is defined as someone who is a positive influence on others and likes to joke and bring a smile to other people’s faces. Studies have already identified that those people have more positive emotions and tend to have a more positive mindset. There’s no room for lots of worry and anxiety when you see the world as your playground.
There is also evidence that for some people at least, humour is a coping mechanism. Research suggests some people are actually rather anxious inside, but hide it through light hearted banter and jokes. This is no doubt is true, but what is positive about these people is the way they use humour to cope by finding effective mechanisms to bring themselves out of a state of fear. They use humour to regulate their emotions, in the same way another person might use meditation to calm and regulate their emotions. Humour is simply another intervention type that can help a person manage their reaction to the world.
But can humour really be a trainable skill?
There is growing and exciting research that has found personality trait is changeable. This means we are not fixed in our ways and can learn to alter our natural tendencies when they are not serving us well. So if you are a natural pessimist, maybe even scoring high on neuroticism in the ‘Big 5’ personality score, then you can start to shift your focus to seeing the world in a less fearful way, which will help you regulate those thoughts and emotions.
For instance, I have a tendency to look for risks, making me someone who can be a worrier and needs to plan for everything. It usually serves me well as I like to be prepared and always do the best job I can do. But there are times when I wish I could just be less serious about the things I do. On my journey towards developing a humour trait to balance out my conscientiousness I have created a concept I call ‘playful curiosity’. Using cognitive re-evaluation I notice when I am feeling overwhelmed or behaving with too much seriousness over a challenge. When this occurs I take some time out to bring myself to a neutral state and use the phrase ‘playful curiosity’ to remind myself to be playful and lighten up about the things I do each day, to look around me and simply notice and observe the world. I am naturally curious so it is quite easy for me to start using my curiosity to look at myself, my surroundings and my responsibilities. By injecting humour and playfulness into it I can often move from a stuck state to one that sees many possibilities to overcoming the challenges.
Humour interventions to try
If you want to inject some humour into your behaviour, here are some interventions I have come across that you might want to try!
1. Laughter yoga
This is a popular intervention where the benefits of laughing are cultivated in group settings. We all know how laughter can be infectious, and laughter yoga taps into that by applying a number of exercises that encourage laughter to release tension and raise endorphins.
2. Three funny things
This is a modification on the ‘three good things’ intervention. Instead of writing three good things that happened during the day, note down three things that made you laugh or funny things that happened to you in the day.
3. Solving problems with humour
This encourages you to think about a situation in the past that was problematic and write down in as much detail as possible what you could have done to have solved it with humour. Alternatively you could take a current problem and think about how to solve it with humour.
4. Tell a joke in a meeting or in public
This might be one for the more extraverted out there, or those that are very comfortable with their work colleagues! Meetings can be a bit boring, so during a meeting tell a joke or tell a humorous ditty. You could also do this to when out shopping, although you might get some uncomfortable looks if you don’t also assess whether the people around you are likely to be receptive! At the very least smile and put a spring in your step as that certainly helps lighten the mood!
5. Prompt yourself to laugh during the day
Similar to what I have been doing, this is about stopping and remembering to lighten up. Whether laughing, smiling, joking or playing the fool, create a prompt for you to check in to the humour within. I use a phrase ‘anchor’ to prompt my mindset, or you could even set your phone to go off intermittently during the day and give yourself a few minutes of light heartedness.
6. Come up with one of your own! J
This is quite a new area for interventions and there are not that many out there yet. So come out from below that desk, ignore that pile of ‘to do’ papers for a little while, and come up with your own humour intervention to kick start that light hearted look on life.
As the Monty Python team once sang….”If life seems jolly rotten, There’s something you’ve forgotten, And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing”!
About the author: Lisa Jones
‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’
The Positive Psychology People is co-founded and sponsored
by Lesley Lyle and Dan Collinson,
Directors of Positive Psychology Learning and authors of the
8-week online Happiness Course
Find out more about positive psychology courses and training at