Toronto Star

Saturday, July 17, 1999

Getting more smileage out of life


In our rapidly changing world, humour isn't frivolous. It's a necessity

By Janice Turner
Toronto Star Life Writer

It's one of the best coping mechanisms known to mankind. And it's there for the asking.

It's humour and for a ton of reasons - you can start with the pace of life - there seems to be a shortage of it these days.

In our quest to do the right thing, to be our best, to put our best foot forward, many of us have stopped pausing long enough to smile or - hold on! - break out in a laugh.

I'm overstating the point, am I?

Think of the last time you heard a neighbour or colleague roar or shriek with delight.

How often do you have a really good belly laugh - or get a response in a light-hearted tone, along with a smile?

Exposing your sense of humour doesn't mean you're less committed to your job or responsibilities, says Dr. David B. Posen, an Oakville physician who does stress management and lifestyle counselling. It doesn't make you less conscientious or skilled.

Indeed, in our rapidly changing world - and a North American work culture that seems to be growing more serious and intense by the nanosecond - humour isn't a frill, Posen insists. It's necessary for survival.

``Humour isn't about changing what happens,'' he says. ``It's about changing our reaction to what happens. And those who use humour as a coping strategy are generally more resilient and adaptable when faced with change.''

Bottom line: Laughter relieves tension. You cannot laugh and feel tense at the same time.

Too often, though, we don't feel we have permission to be playful. There's just so much to tend to. Me, chuckle? Maybe later . . .

``I just think people are in too much of a hurry,'' says Posen. ``They feel they have to keep their nose to the grindstone.''

Create a fun work or home environment and people will beat a path to your door to spend time or to work with you, he says.

Joel Goodman, a humour consultant based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., warns that laughter is far too important to leave to chance. It can do wonders to get you out of your mental rut.

Goodman isn't suggesting we all become the office clown or family fool. But more of us could do with a healthier, less solemn perspective. Humour isn't all joke-telling and one-liners. It includes re-framing our thoughts - privately - in a jocular way. Humour can be an attitude.

Posen personally uses humour - and regular physical activity - to stay balanced. He keeps a few bean bags on his office desk and every so often, takes a short tossing break. It reminds him to stay loose and playful.

``It's awfully hard to take yourself seriously when you're juggling,'' he says.

Humour can make us more creative and more resourceful. It can relieve boredom and energize us.

Don't think sense of humour, think senses or flavours of humour, says Goodman, 50, who founded Humor Project Inc.

( more than 20 years ago.

His business has grown from a one-person show to a staff of six and a 50-person speakers bureau. Its annual International Personal and Professional Skillshop workshop runs July 25 to 30 in the Adirondacks in New York.

`When we laugh all kinds of good things happen to us'

A sense of humour is what makes us uniquely human. Yet, far too early on, children are told to wipe the smiles off their faces, to get serious, to grow up and stop being so silly.

``Subtly, and not so subtly, as children we get the message that growing up means losing your childlike qualities,'' Goodman says.

There's a big difference between childish behaviour and a childlike attitude.

To strive for excellence is one thing; pursuing perfection is quite another. It's fine to be serious, but being humourless is counterproductive.

``If we could only laugh at ourselves a little more, life would be a lot smoother,'' Goodman says.

Even top-level business types report the virtues of fun over boring or dull, Goodman says. They know that humour provides some serious benefits.

``When we laugh, all kinds of good things happen to us,'' he notes.

A good guffaw relaxes muscles, lowers blood pressure, suppresses stress-related hormones and enhances the immune system.

Humour and creativity are intimately related. Humour can offer new perspectives on old realities.

Goodman suggests we make a habit of making light. Develop some rituals, he says. Make it part of your environment. It may be as simple as scheduling a weekly TV sitcom night for your family, or establishing a humour bulletin board.

Posen says humour has always been part of his resiliency repertoire. In his youth, he routinely said funny things to himself - which he's learned is a lot easier than trying to be highly entertaining to others.

Of course, some people are more natural with humour than others.

``But I think many of us can do better than we are,'' says Posen. ``We all have the ability to be more humour-ful.''

As an old saying goes: People don't laugh because they're happy. They're happy because they laugh.

If we enjoy humour only when we're relaxed and jovial, then we're missing the boat. It's when we're most tense, overwhelmed, hurried, frustrated or disappointed that humour can be most beneficial, Posen says.

You're going to have to choose to see the funny side of things

Goodman agrees there are some folks who appear to be spontaneously funny. The others - most of us - have to be more intentional about it.

``It's really what we choose to do,'' he says.

If you're waiting for humour to suddenly jump into your lap, you're going to have a long wait. You have to start finding reasons to laugh. You're going to have to choose to see the funny side of things.

Guaranteed, you'll be happier for it.

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