How Humor and Laughter Can Help You Cope with Life's Ups and Downs

10/14/2012 07:11 pm ET | Updated Mar 13, 2015

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By Martha Beck

If a stubborn dilemma has you stumped, Martha Beck can help you find a resolution. Task number one: Yuk it up.

Back when I used to go running every day, my favorite route included a long, narrow path between two high hedges. At some point, a pair of blackbirds decided to nest in the hedge. The kamikaze male took to dive-bombing as I jogged, flying at me from behind, grazing my head, swooping forward to land on a nearby perch, waiting until I passed, then bombing all over again. After five or six attacks, I began to feel like Tippi Hedren in "The Birds." One quiet morning as I neared the hedge, I got so nervous I picked up a stick for self-defense.

Surprisingly, the blackbird didn't strike from his usual spot. In fact, the path was terrifyingly silent. With every step, my tension built until -- whoosh -- the telltale rush of air behind me. Nerves strained to the breaking point, I leaped straight up, waving my stick and screaming, "Leave me alone!" At which point I realized there was no blackbird behind me -- just an elderly man on a bicycle, looking shocked, hurt, and afraid.

I like to reminisce about this incident when I should be working. It never fails to tickle me. Oh, the expression on that poor man's face! The suddenness with which I went from civilized jogger to psycho cavewoman!

But you know what's really funny? While snorting happily at this memory, I'm actually increasing my productivity. Researchers at Northwestern University have found that people who'd just watched a comedy video were better at solving a word puzzle than subjects who'd watched clips from a horror film or a lecture on physics. It seems a part of the brain activated by laughter and lightheartedness is especially well suited to helping us find clever solutions to our problems.

Since coming across this research, I've been enthusiastically leveraging the jolly fact that laughter can create the ideal mind-set for problem solving. In fact, I've come up with an exercise that harnesses deliberately induced lightheartedness to help overcome the chronic dilemmas of everyday life. I call it the PPFFSS method, short for Persistent Problem/Favorite Funny/Serious Solution. Ideally, this method makes use of the Internet, but your brain can do the job, too.

The Persistent-Problem, Favorite-Funny, Serious-Solution (PPFFSS) Method

1. Name your problem.
Finish the statement that follows by identifying a difficulty you struggle with. For example, Sandy's issue was shyness. Ben's was a coworker who always argued with him in meetings. Della's was procrastination.

"I have a persistent problem with _____________________________________."

2. Find your favorite funny.
Watch the YouTube videos listed below.

When you don't have access to a computer, think of something silly you've seen, especially something funny that happened to an animal or a baby (I'll explain why below). For instance, Della's poodle covers his eyes with his paws whenever there's a thunderstorm. Maybe your kitten attacks people's shoelaces as if she's killing cobras, or your 8-month-old niece gasps in alarm whenever she glimpses her own feet.

If no funny pet/baby memory comes to mind, think of something you did yourself that now makes you laugh. My run-in with the birds and the old man is an example.

Now choose the video or memory that made you smile the most or laugh the hardest: _____________________________________.

3. Compare your favorite funny to your persistent problem.
Looking back on the problem you identified in step 1, complete the following sentence. (And stay loose; just write whatever pops into your head, without trying to "get it right.")

"My [persistent problem] _______________________________ is like [favorite funny] __________ because ________________________________________________________."

For example, Sandy wrote, "My shyness is like the excited pug because he freaks out and acts manic around other dogs, and I freak out and act manic around other people." Ben said, "My problem with my coworker is like Emerson the baby, who's scared of his mom blowing her nose, because I'm thrown off balance when my coworker argues with me." Della said, "My procrastination is like my poodle covering his eyes in a thunderstorm because I'm hiding from tasks by not looking at them, and I'm ridiculously tense even though everything's really okay."

4. Step into the funny scenario and create a serious solution.
Now close your eyes and imagine you're inside your funny situation. How could you make things better for the person or creature involved? (If this part of the exercise makes you feel goofy, don't worry: Going to a goofy place to loosen up your brain is the point.)

Sandy said: "I'd take the pug to a dog park and help him socialize calmly in real life so TV dogs don't make him lose his cool." Ben's thought was, "I'd show Emerson that nose-blowing can't hurt him, and I'd teach him to say 'Stop!'" Della told me, "Well, when my dog's afraid, it helps to distract him with things he loves. I'll toss his favorite toy, or we lie on the floor together and howl opera."

Write your own serious solution here:

"If I could step into my favorite funny situation, I'd make things better by ________________________________________________________."

5. Use your serious solution for your persistent problem.
This next step, the payoff step, is sophisticated brain work, but if you've completed all the advance work, your brain is ready. Staying in a lighthearted mind-set, answer this question: How can you address your persistent problem using roughly the same approach you used to improve your favorite funny situation?

In Sandy's case, the thought of comforting the pug led her to the idea that she could deliberately engage with small groups of "safe" people until she stopped pumping adrenaline at the sight of a crowd. This is called graduated exposure, and it's a psychological skill Sandy had never learned; when she tried it, it proved surprisingly effective.

Soft-spoken Ben had never actually called his coworker on her bad behavior. After thinking about how he'd defend baby Emerson from his mother's nose-blowing, he decided he needed to stand up for himself in a similar way, by telling his coworker to stop being so rude. After some rehearsal, he was ready. When the coworker lashed out in a meeting, Ben calmly but firmly asked her to be more courteous. She blushed and blustered, but seeing that everyone agreed with Ben, she backed off -- permanently.

As for Della, she used her poodle-calming strategies to stop procrastinating. When she found herself stalling on a project, instead of angrily pushing harder, she distracted and relaxed herself with pleasant diversions like -- yes! -- watching funny YouTube videos. The uplift of laughter helped break through Della's paralysis; she found it easier to start working after a little entertainment.

Now, thinking about your solution to your favorite funny situation, it's time to apply that solution to your problem. This, by the way, is why funny moments involving babies or pets are ideal; we tend to be more compassionate toward them than we are toward adults. That compassion makes our serious solutions kinder -- and therefore more effective. (And if you're wondering why watching a funny video was preferable to thinking of a funny memory, it's because a video is, in my opinion, more likely to surprise the brain -- and thus more likely to startle it into a mode where it can think outside the box.)

Go ahead and finish this sentence: "I could apply my solution to my problem by _________________________________________________________."

The Beneficial Side Effects of PPFFSS

This method has helped me solve many thorny problems. Just today, when a friend annoyed me by rescheduling a get-together for the fourth time, I returned to my memory of the great blackbird battle. Stepping into that funny scenario, I advised my younger self, "Hon, if you're tense enough to need a stick for the dangerous part of the path, perhaps you should just avoid that part." This helped me see that making plans with this particular friend is dangerous; she is renowned for last-minute changes. Solution: I decided to schedule something enjoyable and do it for its own sake; my friend can show up at the appointed place and time -- or not. This solution pleased me and removed the strain on the relationship.

The PPFFSS method yields infinite creative ideas, but I've found that whatever comes to mind first is usually best. These solutions aren't just clever -- they're powerful. And they put us in the perfect mood: slow to anger, sulk, or panic; quick to offer buoyant, solutions-focused energy.

Right this minute, teachers and supervisors everywhere are telling people, "Stop laughing!" No wonder humans have created so many problems. In fact, those problems are so serious, there's not a second to waste. We simply must focus on sneezing pandas, cowardly poodles, and birds that made us go berserk. We've got a world of crises to deal with. It's time to get laughing.

Martha Beck is the author of Finding Your Way in a Wild New World (Free Press).

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