How Humor Can Help Us Cope During Difficult Times

Laughter is great medicine — and much needed during a pandemic.

fizkes / Shutterstock
fizkes / Shutterstock

In the midst of all the loss and suffering the world is experiencing, it can feel a little inappropriate and insensitive to laugh or tell a joke. But as human beings, laughter can be a profound coping mechanism — a way to get through a tough situation. Research shows that humor has the power to lift our spirits, lower stress, boost immunity, and produce endorphins. It’s also cathartic. In the words of Stephen Colbert, “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time.” 

The pandemic isn’t a laughing matter, but seeing the funny side of things doesn’t take away the seriousness of it all or diminish our empathy. On the contrary, “comedy creates camaraderie which is so important at times of crisis,” Steve Gimbel, professor of philosophy and Jewish studies at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, tells Thrive. “It creates what Ted Cohen, the late philosophy professor and author, called ‘joke intimacy,’ a feeling of closeness, which is so valuable when we’re not allowed to be physically close to one another.”

“Laughter is only insensitive when you laugh at someone in a way that makes them feel less than human,” adds Gimbel, who’s a former part-time stand-up comedian himself. In Gimbel’s view, it’s “allowable to joke about a common misfortune. We’re all in this together,” he says, adding that “humor helps us make meaning of our experience.”

Here, four ways to find humor and keep your spirits up during this time:

Cue the comedy

We all have our favorite funny films and T.V. shows, and now is a great time to watch them again. And instead of ending your day by tuning into horrific news and sad headlines, consider plugging into some humor before winding down for bed. A couple of our recent favorites: Amy Schumer, who made this hilarious self-deprecating Instagram video of herself doing her own laundry, and John Krasinski, who brings a welcome dose of humor into his YouTube show, “Some Good News.”

Play an online game with friends

Just because you can’t physically be with your pals during social distancing doesn’t mean that you can’t play a game with them. And word games are especially good for a laugh. (Words With Friends 2 on iOS and Android is a popular one.) Very often, “jokes come out of wordplay,” says Gimbel. 

Channel your inner comedian 

If you’ve ever harbored a secret dream of doing comedy, follow the lead of scores of comedians who are using their family members and roommates as an audience while the nation continues to quarantine. Try putting together three minutes of humorous monologue and giving it a go in front of your inner circle, says Gimbel. His own “best” coronavirus joke? “I see no reason why a vaccine would have to address only one infectious disease — why not give us a shot for Corona with Lyme?”

Find the funny in everyday situations 

It’s all too easy to focus only “on the catastrophe and real suffering that’s unfolding,” Kathleen LaCamera, a filmmaker and a community mental health chaplain, tells Thrive. But comedy “reminds us that life still goes on, even as we live through tough times.” The funny can be found all around you, she notes, whether it’s from “observing the antics of a cat, or from your dad’s most embarrassing joke. Commenting loudly about ‘delicious’ hospital coffee that’s clearly terrible in an E.R. staff room can send everyone into stitches on a particularly diabolical Saturday night,” she says. Laughter, she adds, is a reminder “of a world beyond illness and fear and fatigue.”

While everyone can use their intuition about when and when not to make a joke, in general, says LaCamera, it’s not disrespectful to laugh. “All I can tell you is that people going through crises have never told me there was too much laughter in their lives, but they have said there wasn’t nearly enough laughter.”  

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