Humor as a Survival Skill

Humor as a Survival Skill

Definition of survival
The American Heritage Dictionary defines survival as "Natural selection conceived of as a struggle for life in which only those organisms best adapted to existing conditions are able to survive …"(see also Gloria Gaynor "I will survive", "Destiny's Child "Survivor", and the official sound track of CBS's TV series "Survivor".)
   The Random House Dictionary defines a survival kit as a "package containing medical supplies, rations, and other vital equipment for use by a person forced to land in or parachute into the ocean, jungle, or other isolated or hostile territory." These may include, but are not limited to corporate boardrooms, company meetings, family gatherings or reunions, and other difficult situations. It's a jungle out there!
   An additional definition is to "get along or remain healthy, happy, and unaffected in spite of some occurrence." As everything that happens can be considered "an occurrence" the real meaning of this definition is to keep your cool at all times.

Concept of survival in Darwin
Darwin's Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859. Darwin was doing two things:
  1. Determining whether evolution has occurred (and he shows evidence which supports the reality of evolution) and
  2. Explaining how evolution occurred.
His revolutionary work examines the nature of life, the diversity of living things, and their marvelous adaptations.
   Survival of the Funniest is based on the fact that humor is a natural instinct and in our lives today, a sense of humor is necessary to survive. In applying evolutionary theory to humor, and humor in life is like having Darwin meet the Dalai Lama. Laughter is essential to inner tranquility. Darwin concluded that generations of species pass on to their offspring characteristics that enable the species to survive. I fundamentally believe we can imprint a sense of humor on our species.

Humor in the workplace
  • Humor in the workplace must follow the AT&T principle - it must be Appropriate, Timely, and Tasteful says Dr. Joel Goodman of the Humor Project, who coined the phrase.

  • Laughter physically relaxes people, thereby increasing productivity and creativity. Reducing stress is the key.

  • Humor is the glue for effective teamwork. It enables people to step outside their respective roles and job titles to share something funny. U.S. psychologist Steve Wilson agrees. Work is serious business, he says. Laughter relieves emotional tension (which is part of stress), relaxes the muscles and imitates an aerobic workout through cardiovascular stimulation. It triggers the endorphin system, which helps relieve pain and enhances the immune system.

  • Sometimes dark humor is absolutely essential to survive in dangerous workplaces, both for workers and victims. Think of how firefighters handle their sometimes deadly environment. Deputy Chief John McDougall of the Mississauga, Ontario, Fire and Emergency Services places humor at the top of the list of essential qualities for a successful fire team. Being able to take a good-natured joke is just as important as giving it out, he says. "The humor is sometimes black, but that is the way the grisly and tragic scenes we face almost every day are dealt with."

    In the same manner, medical staff in Toronto hospitals during the 2003 SARS epidemic expressed their fears in black humor which led to some memorable laughs. Scarborough Grace Hospital, where the epidemic began, was called, tongue-in-cheek, SARS Central, and the Township of Scarborough, where the hospital is located, was baptized Sarsborough. For more background on how medical emergency workers used humor to keep their spirits up during those difficult days, see the article Laughter is a Survival Skill on this website.

  • After three decades of research the Mayo Clinic reported in 2000 that optimistic people live about 19% longer than pessimists. "It confirmed our common-sense belief …and tells us that mind and body are linked and that attitude has an impact on the final outcome, death," said Toshihiko Maruta, a psychiatrist who was the lead researcher in the project.

  • Humor is not a Flavor of the Month or a passing fancy. Other improvement programs have value, but humor is a basic. It's no coincidence that when researchers canvas the qualities of successful business leaders, a sense of humor is almost always a major factor. It's a key ingredient in rising to the top. Good leaders know how to bring humor into play in times of stress. Arguably, individuals are "naturally selected" in the corporate world when they demonstrate they can take their work seriously and themselves lightly. Humor can collapse an organization chart if people have permission to laugh in the workplace and the humor is top down.

  • A critical ingredient to a company's success is to retain talented employees. One of the ways to do that is to invest in that talent, helping employees hone their individual and team humor skills and creating a positive workplace environment. This applies to all levels of the organization. (See Becoming a Laughaholic).
    (Catherine once asked Sir Edmund Hilary his view on the role of humor in life. He replied he had always found the main ingredient in any successful expedition was a sense of humor.)

  • Creating a positive workplace environment can pay big dividends for any company. Newspapers are filled with stories illustrating skyrocketing levels of stress. Researchers at Yale University have shown that when workers are depressed it a huge toll on productivity. In a study on more than 6,000 workers in three companies they found that depressed workers were twice as likely to take time off for health reasons as non-depressed workers. They were seven times more likely to be less productive on the job.
Humor in health
  • When Norman Cousins wrote The Anatomy of an Illness in 1979, he really grandfathered the modern laughter in health movement. In his wake came the outstanding work of Dr. Patch Adams.

  • Catherine can report on some of the fascinating research that's being done, and the science of laughter as it applies to the human body. Such researchers as Dr. Margaret Stuber and Dr. Lee Berk are working on how humor affects us physiologically and emotionally.

  • Catherine is in regular contact with a number of clowns, both in and outside her family. She is never far from a supply of red noses, funny glasses, and mirrors to help you discover your inner clown.

  • Gilda's Club of Greater TorontoThe family and friends of Gilda Radner, a comic icon who died of cancer, helped found Gilda's Club of Greater Toronto. Its mission is to provide a meeting place where the courageous people living with cancer can join with others to build social and emotional support as an adjunct to their treatment of choice. In Toronto, Catherine has conducted laughter workshops at Gilda's Club at the Old Firehall, originally home to Second City. Membership and admission is free for all of Gilda's programs.
Humor in relationships
  • Darwin himself observed and recorded in his notebooks, "No living thing was created ready made." Development in nature is by evolution, and using Darwin's analysis, I believe we can imprint on our species a sense of humor. There is a seriousness epidemic where a sense of fun seems to be slipping out of our lives. A mother once told me that her son said to her, "Mom, you never laugh!"

  • Steve Allen in his book How to be Funny says, "We know that children are great monkeys, that in our early years we are remarkably imitative." How else, do we learn to speak our languages and learn our manners? Some people, Allen feels, may see humor more instinctively, but like playing the piano, it can be learned. (Some very serious people suffer from 'pianist envy'.)


Humor in everything else
  • As you can see, there is no field in which humor does not apply. Dr. Joel Goodman, for example, cites the story of an elementary teacher who gave humor workshops recalling a confrontation with a disruptive classroom. When he told them to knock it off, the biggest of the group shot back, "Who's going to make us?" The teacher recalled, "You could feel the tension at that point." Then the teacher stepped up to the student, locked eyes with him, paused for effect, and said, "I think it's only fair to warn you that I have a black belt in origami!" Everyone burst out laughing.
  • Golf. Humor in golf deserves a whole book on its own. Forget golfing to relax. Instead you must relax to golf and one great way to relax is to LAUGH! The minute you think you are a golfer and that "you've got it going on" (in the words of Meadowlark Lemon) golf has a way of reaching up and grabbing you. Ego is short-lived on the links. You don't have to wait for the halfway house. Humble Pie is served at any hole. Mark Twain said "It's still good sportsmanship not to pick up lost balls while they are still rolling."

  • Hockey. One of the many hats Catherine wears is that of a hockey mom. For observations from her field notebook, see her article "Hockey Moms: are they an endangered species?"

  • Basketball. Catherine's encounter with Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon is described on the articles page. See "Keeping His Eyes on the Prize."