08/15/2012 08:06 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2012

Humor Is More Than a Punchline

As a hospice social worker, my role was to provide psychosocial counseling to terminally ill patients and their families. Once, I was on my way to visit a patient and, unbeknownst to me, I was given the wrong directions to the patient's house. I should have taken the second left on a particular street, but the directions said to take the third left.

In an unfortunate coincidence, the house numbers were the same on both streets. So, I went up to the wrong house, thinking it was the right house, and knocked on the door.

A woman opened the door and I said, "Hi, I'm Ron Culberson, the hospice social worker."

She took a step back and said, "Hi, I'm Mary Smith. And I've got a cold... but I'm not that sick."

It was a nicely-played bit of humor that made us both feel more comfortable.

One of the discoveries I made when writing my graduate thesis was that humor provides psychological, physical, spiritual, and social benefits. The benefit that most resonated with me is the way that humor helps us to manage stress.

First of all, if we can laugh in the midst of stress, we create a psychological buffering effect that balances the stress and keeps it from overwhelming us. For instance, when a driver cut me off in traffic one day, I noticed the license plate on his car: IMACHEY.

It made me laugh. And when I laughed, I felt less stressed by his cutting me off. The humor created a psychological distance between the stress and me thus allowing me to detach from it more easily.

A second stress-reduction benefit of humor is that it gives us a new perspective. Humor actually forces us to see things differently.

For instance, the structure of a joke involves a setup and a punchline. The setup goes down one path and the punchline takes a turn forcing us to see the original premise differently.

For example, this three-legged dog walked into an old west saloon and said, "I'm looking for the man who shot my paw."

Yes, I know it's a bad joke -- no need to post a comment about that, please!

But here's the cool thing. The word paw takes on two meanings. "Paw" for foot and "pa" for father. Now, we have two perspectives on the same event.

I believe that much of our day-to-day stress is based not so much on what is really going on but instead on how we see what's going on. Otherwise, we would all be stressed by the same things -- and we're not. Since we respond differently to different events, much of the stress must come from how we perceive the particular event.

If humor forces us to see things from another perspective, then perhaps if we look for it or use it more regularly, we could learn how to change our perspective more easily when we encounter something that causes us stress.

Humor helps us balance stress and see it less stressfully. Because of that, it's much more than a punchline.

Have you had your dose of humor today?

For more by Ron Culberson, MSW, CSP, click here.

For more on stress, click here.