It Isn’t Funny, But It’s Okay to Laugh…

When we (psychologists) are evaluating a person, we take note of their affect. Affect is, loosely defined, the way your mood looks to the rest of the world. So, it is worrisome if you say your mood is “fine,” but your affect says you are very angry or sad. We take note of such incongruity, and question why you say one thing and do another. However, the ideal situation is where we can say a patient has a “full range of affect.” This means that, no matter your circumstances, you are able to feel/show emotions of a varied range – happy, sad, angry, anxious, etc. It is a sign of a healthy and well-adjusted person who experiences all of the feelings, at least some of the time.

Laughter and humor have some documented positive benefits:
Relationship strengthening
Physical and mental health
Stress and pain relief

What I ask you to consider is this: even though pain and the issues that come with it are far from funny, sometimes it is okay, even good, to have a laugh. Sometimes it’s not even wrong – it’s just right.

I remember Saturday Night Live had its season premiere just two weeks after September 11th, 2001. The show’s creative director got in front of the camera with Mayor Giuliani, with firefighters and police in the background, and he asked the Mayor – “Is it okay for us to be funny?” And the Mayor said something like “you haven’t been funny in years, why should that change now?” And the point (that I remember) was that 9/11 was far from being something to laugh at…but you can’t be mad or sad all the time. Sometimes, even if you don’t want to laugh, or think it’s wrong – that’s when it’s right.

I used to work in cancer and end of life care and, in that field especially, sometimes you had to find the humor (for the professionals and the patients). Someone showed me this guy’s blog, where he had some laughs at his own expense and made inappropriate (but funny) cartoons, like this one and this one Now, there are usually only two reactions to these – “that’s pretty funny” or “cancer isn’t funny at all.” And they’re both right – cancer is very un-funny, but sometimes the situations we face are so absurd, so upsettingly bizarre and unexpected, that they are sort of comical.

Think about it – is there anything about your situation that is funny? Not desirable – but funny because it’s so absurd? Like, isn’t it ridiculous that you get prescribed pain medications that constipate you so you then need medications to help you move your bowels…you fix one problem, and something else breaks. Isn’t it absurd that a person your age has these limitations like an older man or woman? (Not funny, but sort of ridiculous?) Now take note, I’m not advocating for mean-spirited mockery – like most sensitive subjects, if you are the person in pain, you may have to set the rules for when jokes are funny or desired and when they may be rude or too off-color.

Or, apart from your own experience, when’s the last time you saw a comedy, or laughed with your friends, or told a joke? You can be in pain and still have a laugh (even if it hurts). Leading a full life means focusing on other people, things, and feelings besides yourself. This doesn’t mean negating your experience or pretending you’re okay. It just means that people in pain can still laugh.

A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book. ~Irish Proverb

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