Baby Laughing by Weird Beard at Flickr

"In my belief, you cannot deal with the most serious things in the world unless you also understand the most amusing."

Winston S Churchill

A few years ago I was going into Southampton city centre to do some shopping. The streets were busy and parking places were at a premium but nonetheless I found one space at the side of the road. I duly reversed into the marked box and turned the engine off. Suddenly a man I had not seen before appeared at my window and furiously banged on the glass. I wound down the window and, before I could say anything, he started ranting about how I had stolen his parking space.

Unfortunately for this man, he had caught just at a time my sense of humor was strong and I decided to try an experiment. I opened the door and got out. He once more berated me for taking his space until I stood next to him, put my arm around his shoulders and quietly said into his ear 'Look, because I am more intelligent than you, I will go and find another space. Okay?' With that, I leapt into my car and drove off. My last view of my assailant was of him still standing in the middle of the road dumbstruck.

I discovered that day that humor is a powerful tool, even a weapon. Research since that time has shown to me how essential a sense of humor really is.

Health And A Sense Of Humor

Humor and laughter are of course closely related and laughter has very strong benefits to our health. Laughter helps the heart by pumping the blood faster; laughter decreases stress and produces immune boosting cells. It produces endorphins, which give a natural high and can reduce pain. Laughter helps you relax and laughing with friends is not only sociable but somehow magnifies the benefits.

Author Paul E. McGhee Ph.D. says, "Your sense of humor is one of the most powerful tools you have to make certain that your daily mood and emotional state support good health."

In their book 'You Can't Afford The Luxury Of A Negative Thought,' John-Roger and Peter McWilliams tell the story of Norman Cousins who was told he was terminally ill and had only six months to live. He concluded that a negative life could be one of the reasons for his condition so decided to develop his sense of humor to counteract this. He watched funny videos and sought out funny stories. He even asked friends to call him if they found anything that made them laugh.

Mr Cousins was in pain that would prevent him sleeping but found five minutes laughing relieved the pain for several hours and he could sleep once more.

He recovered and is alive today.

In the movie and book 'The Secret,' Cathy Goodman tells how she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was determined to recover and one of the methods she employed was to watch funny movies one after the other. She just wanted to "laugh, laugh and laugh" and remove all stress. She was healed in three months without any radiation or chemotherapy, just her sense of humor.

War And A Sense Of Humor

The suffering of the Second World War revealed a developed sense of humor in those involved.

Incredibly, in his book 'Man's Search For Meaning,' Viktor Frankl explains how he even came across a sense of humor as an inmate in the concentration camps. He describes how prisoners would dance with joy, for example, when they learned they were being taken to the less feared Dachau camp instead of Mauthausen. And when they arrived, "we had come, as quickly as possible, to a camp which did not have a 'chimney' – unlike Auschwitz. We laughed and cracked jokes in spite of, and during, all we had to go through in the next few hours."

Frankl drew this conclusion: "The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent."

Another excellent example is the spirit found in London during the pounding of the city by bombs in the 1940 Blitz, the seventy-year anniversary of which is taking place as I write. A photograph of a shop front blown apart by a bomb with a sign saying 'more open than usual' is a well-known image of defiance and the sense of humor shown during those dark days.

As part of the Blitz anniversary earlier in September, the Guardian newspaper interviewed people who had been involved.

Marguerite Crowther, for example, had been driving ambulances in all the mayhem. She told the Guardian "There was a wonderful sense of humor all through. People were doing their jobs, and doing it with a wonderful London humor. You sometimes found yourself laughing in the wrong place, probably because you were hysterical." She tells of one occasion when she came across an elderly man in pyjamas walking through the rubble saying 'I have got to find them, I have got to find them.' After some questioning, she found out it was his teeth the man was missing and he would not be persuaded to leave without them as he did not want people to see him toothless!

Another survivor of the Blitz was Mary Warschauer who had worked as a teleprinter operator in the same basement as Winston Churchill had his war room.

She remembered looking for a toilet in bombed London only to find one that had been catapulted into the branches of a nearby tree. She laughed at the irony that the only toilet she found was useless! Her sense of humor emerged in other ways too. She told the Guardian reporter about being with her boyfriend one day after a raid. "Once the all-clear sounded, we walked up to Marble Arch, and that's something I'll never forget. There wasn't a sign of traffic, so the two of us did the waltz down Oxford Street, then went hand-in-hand singing our heads off down Bond Street as far as Piccadilly. We enjoyed life."

She remembered meeting Churchill in a corridor once. Mary was using a joke cigar to imitate the great man and he saw her. Of course she was embarrassed but he said nothing and just grinned as he walked past.

Milkman by Foxtongue at Flickr

The Sense Of Humor Of Winston Churchill

There is in existence a video showing Winston Churchill preparing for a newsreel broadcast. Not used to the medium, he struggled with the speech and the script. He persevered for a time before he paused, looked directly into the camera and a twinkle came into his eye. The Prime Minister then recited a bit of hilarious doggerel he was clearly making up. This as much as anything shows the powerful sense of humor of the man.

Churchill's wit is well known and his many quotations are related every day but the strength of his sense of humor and the impact it had on the progress of the war is less appreciated.

Herbert Ellison, editor of the Washington Post, understood the power of a sense of humor. "Churchill will live if only in his witticisms. And these will be the stock of conversation in all countries for a long time to come. They are as much a revelation of character as anything he said or did – as much, also, of an influence among men. In wartime they passed by word of mouth all over the world wherever men were struggling with the aggressor and planning a new life in liberty. They lightened the burdens of the dispirited and were quoted as the words of a champion."

In 1916, during the First World War, Churchill showed he appreciated the role a sense of humor has in coping with adversity. "Laugh a little, and teach your men to laugh – great good humor under fire – war is a game that is played with a smile. If you can't smile, grin. If you can't grin, keep out of the way till you can."

A Sense Of Humor In Medicine

What if dealing with emergencies is a part of your daily life? Can a sense of humor help you?

Dara Hurt is a talented writer and photographer who has also had extensive nursing experience including as a paramedic, an ER nurse and in intensive care. She kindly agreed to explain how a sense of humor helps.

Have you ever been to the emergency department, maybe for something a bit "sensitive", and had an unsettling feeling that the staff were going to laugh about you after you were gone? The chances are pretty good that they did!

Perhaps your misfortune made it into the ER "legendary stories"...these are the "really good ones" that get re-told at staff gatherings. Everyone who has worked in a hospital for any length of time has at least one. I must say though that the emergency department gets the best ones!

The people who work in the unique environment of an emergency room must form a bond-teamwork is not an option-lives depend on it. It's a place that can go from boredom and pot-luck lunches to out and out chaos in a matter of minutes. People who work under this kind of stress do so for a reason-they thrive on it -and they care.

The range of human emotions that can play out in the course of one ER day are seemingly limitless. The hardest ones are of course the tragedies.

It is a natural occurrence to take one's light moments where possible.

The general public might tend to be shocked by some of the things medical people find funny, but they still like to hear our stories! Who hasn't known someone who has told a story about a person presenting to the ER with something stuck somewhere? Be it a child with a bead up her nose or an adult with...well, you get the idea. But how many people actually are charged to deal with the hysterical child and her panicky mother...not to mention trying maintain a professional demeanor with the adult who's problem is a bit more...embarrassing?

Then an ambulance brings in a child pulled from a pool. Or a mother having a heart attack. Or a teenager with a gun shot wound.

The constant stream of people, never at their best and sometimes at their very worst, takes a toll on those who care for them. This kind of work is very rewarding and very taxing. It is a succession of people in pain, people in anguish, people in real trouble, people dying, people with no where else to go.

In these times, humor literally saves lives.

Chicago comedy underground by tripp shoots people at Flickr

Success And A Sense Of Humor

So we know a sense of humor can help in times of high stress. But can it be used as an asset in modern daily life? It certainly can.

Many writers make the process of self-improvement seem to be a serious chore but I maintain you cannot improve your life without having fun and a sense of humor.

Napoleon Hill does concede to the need in the book 'Napoleon Hill's Unlimited Success'. "A sense of humor can smooth the bumps on the road of success. If you are one of those people who is blessed with a cheerful disposition, count yourself fortunate. If not, you can develop one."

"It's obvious that a good sense of humor makes you a more likeable, more attractive person. That alone will help you achieve success. But more than that, it can help you overcome momentary failures, to rise above them and seek out new courses of action that will put you back on the success track."

Norman Vincent Peale also values a sense of humor. In his classic book, 'You Can If You Think You Can,' Doctor Peale states, "The wisdom of equanimity is based on a sense of humor reaction about all human activity. And the person who masters this quality is bound to enjoy life far better than the excitable and super-concerned, eager-beaver type so common nowadays."

A sense of humor is a powerful asset. Think of a public speaker you particularly liked. Or maybe a television personality you enjoy. The chances are such people have a strong sense of humor and show it in their speech. People are drawn to those with a sense of humor. Lonely-hearts advertisements are full of appeals for someone with a 'GSOH' – a Good Sense Of Humor.

Satire is an extremely powerful weapon, particularly in these days of mass media. Astute politicians know to appeal to our sense of humor to win our hearts. A fine example is the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who deftly uses his apparent buffoonery and eccentricities to help his cause, even regularly appearing on the acerbic BBC comedy quiz 'Have I got News For You'.

The movie 'V for Vendetta' illustrates the power of satire and appealing to the sense of humor well. In one scene, a television presenter played by the wonderful Stephen Fry satirizes the dictator and that moment can be said to mark the start of popular rebellion against the repressive regime.

The humorist James Thurbur wrote, "Humor is counterbalance. Laughter need not be cut out of anything, since it improves everything. The power that created the poodle, the platypus and people has an integrated sense of both comedy and tragedy."

A Modern Lack Of a Sense Of Humor

Modern life has a tendency to erode our sense of humor. Note I am not talking here about the rough, unsophisticated humor of the 'Jackass' type, designed simply to shock and laugh at hurt but the ability to laugh at life and our shortcomings. To make life feel better.

A great example of both the power of a sense of humor and the modern erosion of a light-hearted attitude occurred in Northern Ireland in May this year. Youths started throwing bottles at a police vehicle in Lisburn and the situation looked dangerous. However an officer with a sense of humor played music from an ice cream van over the tannoy of a police vehicle. The youths stopped and started laughing. The situation was resolved.

The officer involved has incredibly been reprimanded. The local Sinn Fein councillor told the BBC, "The PSNI (Police Service For Northern Ireland) are put on the streets to do a serious job and that is to keep order on the streets and to face down anti-social elements. This is like a sick joke. It goes against everything we are trying to solve and eradicate in the area."

Oh dear, presumably they want all to be unhappy. When did 'authorities' lose their sense of humor?

BBC foreign correspondent, John Simpson, wrote in his book 'Not Quite World's End,' "Officialdom's sense of humour, if it ever had one, has long since been surgically removed."


If individuals or society lose their sense of humor then we are all in big trouble. Humor is essential to getting the most out of life. If we are honest with ourselves, then we will admit that the goal in life is to achieve happiness and that is impossible without a sense of humor. Laughing not only benefits our health but also makes life easier.

One last anecdote; a few years ago I was one of the first at the scene of a road accident. A motorcyclist had come off his machine and fallen between two parked cars. He had at least a broken leg and was badly shocked. An ambulance was called. The vehicle duly turned up within a few minutes and, as it raced down the road with it's lights and sirens going, one of the other men at the scene turned to the victim of the crash. 'You are a lucky devil,' he said. The motorcyclist looked bemused, 'Am I?' he said. 'Yes,' the first man said, 'you get to ride in an ambulance, I never have.' We all had to laugh, including the crash victim who hurt himself laughing.

The question is: did that motorcyclist feel better because someone else had a sense of humor?

Banana skin by alan cleaver 2000 at Flickr