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Comedy in Tragedy

Steven Sultanoff, adjunct psychology faculty at GSEP and an international expert in therapeutic uses of humor, shares the healing power of a good laugh.

July 21, 2020  | 2 min read

Steve SultanoffHold on Humor

In moments of fear, our cognitive resources retract. In other words, our thinking is compromised and our survival instincts take over. As we adapt to a threat, our cognitive functioning begins to return, and we become more creative, perceptive, and open-minded— ultimately becoming more receptive to interventions such as humor.

The Best Medicine

Research has shown that deep, heartfelt laughter increases one’s tolerance for pain and decreases one’s cortisol production, the hormone secreted when we experience stress. Laughter also increases the production of certain antibodies, especially, according to various studies, those that fight upper respiratory diseases. “When we look at the potential of laughter in the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sultanoff says, “it’s possible that those experiencing symptoms could increase the antibodies that fight upper respiratory disease if they engage in frequent laughter.”

Time Heals All Wounds

During a crisis such as a pandemic, the passage of time is one healer. As a crisis fades into an individual’s past, its potency is diminished, and the individual is able to separate the emotions connected with the crisis from their inner emotional being. Beyond time itself, Sultanoff says, “Official charts demonstrating COVID-19 rate progress over a 60-day period give the public a temporal distance from the virus and help it move out of a fearful stage and into the receptivity stage where people can begin to accept humor.”

Have a Merry “Mirthday”

Mirth, the emotional reaction to humor, transforms distressing emotions such as anxiety, fear, depression, and anger into uplifting emotions such as joy and pleasure. During times of crisis, as distressing emotions abound, humor through mirth can relieve and reset our emotional well-being. According to Sultanoff, “Distressing emotions and mirth cannot occupy the same psychological space.”

Wisdom on Wit

Wit, the cognitive reaction to humor, activates perspective, which, Sultanoff says, is one of the most powerful emotional managers. “When we ‘get’ a joke, it compels us to think outside the box and consider alternate, creative possibilities,” says Sultanoff. “In the case of COVID-19, many people are focused on what they can’t do. Wit opens our brains up to things like cooking together in different locations via Zoom or engaging in other communal activities from a distance. If you find ways to enjoy the benefits of humor in the pandemic, you will simply feel better.”