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Humor: A Natural Antidote for Depression?

Discovering light on a dark road

By Chris Dunmire, 1999

“More than 19 million Americans over the age of 18 experience a depressive illness each year,” declares the headline on a Web page at www.depression.com — an informational site devoted to depression and supported in part by the Bristol-Myers Squibb Company. Other organizations like the National Mental Health Association (NMHA) and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) have been gaining popularity in the mental health field by addressing the growing problem of mental illness in our society today. Some may not think of depression as an illness, especially when the term is used loosely to describe almost anything from experiencing a temporary setback in life to feeling unhappy and suicidal. But according to NAMI, mental illnesses are “disorders of the brain that disrupt a person's thinking, feeling, moods, and ability to relate to others” and “often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.” That describes the common effects of depression.

What is depression? It's a mood disorder with varying symptoms, but often makes a person feel sad, hopeless, worthless, anxious, irritable, or tired. Stress, anxiety, change, illness, death, or a combination of several things causes depression. It also occurs because of chemical imbalances within the brain. Depression comes in varying degrees from the temporary blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) to more serious illnesses such as major depression and bipolar disorder that may affect a person for years, and sometimes their whole lifetime. For some people though, depression is a temporary condition that diminishes in time. More severe cases can be treated by a combination of medication and therapy to keep it under control. 

If you or a person you care for suffers from depression, should you feel helpless about the situation, or rely solely on the medication to make you well? Not necessarily. Under the heading “Anti-Depressant Therapies” at the depression.com site, the article notes that you can combat and even prevent some of the negative feelings that result from depression. It states:

“While drug therapies have been very effective in many people for treating depression, there's more to beating depression than just antidepressant medications. How you think, eat, live, work, and play can either send you farther down the abyss — or help you overcome depression and rediscover the happiness of life.”

You still have control over the other facets of your life such as your physical health, your relationships, and your work. You can take care of your body by getting enough rest, maintaining a healthy diet, and exercising regularly. You can develop healthy relationships with others and surround yourself with people who love and care about you. And if you are employed, you can choose work that is challenging and fulfilling to you, giving you a sense of accomplishment. In addition to the above, you can enjoy life more by including humor into your daily routine. Why? Because humor is an excellent tool for combating depression.

What is Humor?

Have you ever thought about what humor really is? How would you describe it? If you looked up “humor” in a dictionary, you would see a similar definition to what Patty Wooten notes in her article, “Humor: an Antidote for Stress.” She says, “[Humor is] the quality of being laughable or comical” or “a state of mind, mood, spirit.” She adds, “Humor then is flowing; involving basic characteristics of the individual expressed in the body, emotions, and spirit” (49).

What is laughable and comical to one person will depend on their current perspective and disposition. A mother might find watching her 5-year-old son feeding the animals at a petting zoo humorous. A child might giggle at the sight of a clown. Slapstick comedy like the Three Stooges amuses some people. The gag-gift market caters to those who like to place plastic Doggie Doo and fake vomit on the living room carpet to scare unsuspecting victims. Cartoonists draw humor. Some people enjoy being quick-witted and playful. And most people laugh together when they talk about funny experiences and share memorable tales. Humor is different to everyone and interpreted according to what someone finds amusing at a particular moment.

Humor resources are abundant, and the ability to create humor in our lives has no limit. In the book The Laughter Prescription by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Bill Dana, Peter outlines a prescription for developing a healthy sense of humor. If you notice in figure 1, Peter suggests eight different points that you can adopt into your life to be more playful, less serious, and more humorous.

Peter's Prescription for Development
of Your Sense of Humor

Adopt an attitude of playfulness. This does not mean that you will do outrageous things, but that your mind is open to uncensored, iconoclastic, silly or outrageous thoughts.

Think funny. See the funny side or flip side of every situation. Select and refine your outrageous thoughts that best expose our conceits, pomposities and incongruities.

Laugh at the incongruities in situations involving yourself and others.

Only laugh with others for what they do rather than for what they are, unless you are assured that they can laugh at themselves for what they are. In laughing with others about their incongruities, see them as mirrors in which your own weaknesses, idiosyncrasies and conceits are reflected.

Laugh at yourself, not in derision, but with objectivity and acceptance of self.

Take yourself lightly. Take your job and your responsibility to yourself and others seriously. You will discover that this will make life's anxieties and burdens lighter.

Make others laugh. By creating happiness for others, you will experience a special joy of accomplishment that only a lively, generous sense of humor can bring.

Realize that a sense of humor is deeper than laughter and more satisfactory than comedy, and delivers greater rewards than merely being entertaining. A sense of humor sees the fun in everyday experiences. It is more important to have fun than it is to be funny.

Fig. 1. The Laughter Prescription, by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Bill Dana (193).

Laughter is Good for the Mind and Body

Don't you feel good after a hearty laugh? Most people do. This is why humor works well against depression. Good feelings replace the bad ones. Humor distracts us and gives us “a different perspective on our problems and, with an attitude of detachment, we feel a sense of self-protection and control in our environment” (Wooten 49). That detachment not only gets our minds off of our misery, but also helps move our train of thought onto another track. Laughing is a perfect example of this. When your thoughts are interrupted by laughter, don't you often forget about what you were previously thinking?

Wooten also points out how laughter combats stress. She writes, “Finding humor in a situation and laughing freely with others can be a powerful antidote to stress. Our sense of humor gives us the ability to find delight, experience joy, and to release tension” (49). The next time you feel overwhelmed by stress, step away and find something to humor you. Later, take note of what the distraction did to the stress you were feeling.

Laughter has positive effects on the body too, according to the research of William F. Fr Jr., M.D. Joseph Dunn of the Humor and Health Journal interviewed Fry, and when asked to share some of his significant findings on the subject, he had much to say. Fry reported:

“Just as there are psychological dynamics associated with humor, mirth, and laughter, there are physiological changes as well . . . most of the major physiologic systems of the body are stimulated or activated during mirthful laughter” (4).

He also pointed out:

“The systems on which we have evidence that mirthful laughter has an impact are: the skeletal muscular system, the central nervous system, the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system, the immune system, and the endocrine system” (5).

It's no wonder why Dr. Patch Adams (Patch Adams) believed in the power of humor therapy and used it on patients to boost their natural defenses while they were ill, or to help them to heal after surgery!

Start Enjoying More Humor Now!

So, is humor a natural antidote for depression? Yes! It's clear that a healthy sense of humor helps combat depression and boosts mental and physical health. Do you have to suffer from depression or be stressed out to benefit from humor? Not at all. You can enjoy the benefits of humor anytime. A good reminder about the value of humor comes from the book Do It! Let's get Off Our Buts by Peter McWilliams. He says, “As we're playing this game of life, something occasionally reminds us not to take it all too seriously. 'Enjoy yourself,' it says, 'you'll never get out of this alive.' It's called humor” (McWilliams 484). What an excellent reminder for everyone!

Remember that your sense of humor is a gift that you can give to others and yourself as often as you want to. The American Association for Therapeutic Humor (AATH) provides a list of The Twelve Affirmations of Positive Humor (fig. 2) as a tool that you can use daily to enjoy more positive humor in your life. Their vision statement regarding humor is worthy of adopting. It declares, “We are committed to advancing our knowledge and understanding of humor and laughter as they relate to healing and well-being.” Remember those words as you enjoy your next hearty laugh.

Good health and humor to you!

The Twelve Affirmations of Positive Humor

  1. I am determined to use my humor for positive, playful, uplifting, healing and loving purposes.
  2. I will take myself lightly while I take my work in life seriously. 
  3. I will not seek to be offended by other's attempts at humor. When in doubt, I will see others as meaning well. 
  4. I will express my humor physically, using my whole face and (when so moved) with my entire body.
  5. I refuse to use my humor to camouflage hostility or prejudice.
  6. I understand that the gift of laughter is a treasured gift, so I will laugh generously at other's attempts to be humorous.
  7. All teasing and ethnic humor will be by mutual consent and will go both ways or I will not engage in such humor.
  8. I will respect the forbidden subject topics of my listeners. I will avoid giving offense with my humor.
  9. If I offend another by my use of humor, I will make amends.
  10. I will be eternally vigilant for the jokes and absurdities of the universe, and I will share my observations with my companions in life. 
  11. In the midst of adversity, I will continue to use my humor to cope, to survive, to heal, to grow, and to pass on loving-kindness.
  12. On the day of my death I will look back and know that I laughed lovingly, fully and well.

Fig. 2. The Twelve Affirmations of Positive Humor, by Christian Hagaseth III, MD (Idea Nurse)

Works Cited

Epicenter Communications, Inc. Anti-Depressant Therapies. 10 Apr. 1995. Bristol-Myers Squibb Company. 26 Nov. 1999 http://www.depression.com/health_library/anti_depressant _therapies /index.html>.

Fry, William F. Jr. "Medical Perspectives on Humor: An Interview with William F. Fry, Jr., M.D." Humor & Health Journal 2.1 (1993): 4-8.

Idea Nurse. AATH. 20 Aug. 1999. The American Association for Therapeutic Humor. 5 Dec. 1999 <http://aath.org/affirm.html>.

McWilliams, Peter. Do It! Let's Get Off Our Buts. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: Prelude, 1994.

NAMI: The Nation's Voice on Mental Illness. 10 Jan.1996. National Alliance for The Mentally Ill. 28 Nov. 1999 <http://www.nami.org/disorder/whatis.html>.

Peter, Laurence J., and Bill Dana. The Laughter Prescription. New York: Ballantine, 1982.

Wooten, Patty. "Humor: An Antidote for Stress." Holistic Nursing Practice 10.2 (1996): 49-56.

© 1999, 2005 Chris Dunmire. All rights reserved.

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