On the other hand, self-enhancing humor, the ability to crack wise and see the humor in a situation when your world is falling apart, protects us from stressful events. Jim McKay, the former coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is an example. Suffering through a woeful first season, McKay was asked about the execution of his team. He responded, “I’m in favor of it.”
“The subjects who could look at the funny side of something grim really did seem to buffer themselves from anxiety,” concludes Cann. Indeed, McKay is now a football icon.
I couldn’t help thinking about Cann the other day when a married friend came to me and confessed she’d been having an affair. By then, her marriage was in ruins, she felt humiliated, and she had no idea how she’d go on with her life. But I knew she would be okay when, after an hour of sobbing, she said, “Well, I lost the man I love. But on the bright side, I could start a whole new career as a hotel consultant.”
Laughing in the face of disaster is a great tonic at the office too. People who work in high-stress fields agree: You gotta laugh, or you can’t do the work. Indeed, in their off-hours, I’ve always found funeral directors to be an unusually jolly lot. “You have to have a sense of humor in this business, just to deal with all the emotion,” says James Olson, owner of a funeral home in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. “It’s often the families who come in and start joking around.”
My friend Spencer agrees. The day after his mother’s death, he and his brother went to the crematorium to make arrangements. “We were sitting in the funeral director’s office, and of course we were all very somber,” he says. “That’s when I noticed the sign on the wall: ‘No Smoking.’ Let’s say it broke the ice.”
Laughter, Olson adds, is often the flip side of crying. “That’s why you see so many people at funerals get the giggles.”
This brings to mind the famous Mary Tyler Moore Show episode. Mary goes to the funeral for Chuckles the Clown, who’d been dressed in a peanut costume for a parade when he was shelled by a hungry elephant. During the eulogy, Mary suffers from a bout of nervous giggles after Chuckles is remembered by a coworker for his many characters: “Peter Peanut, Mr. Fee Fi Fo, Billy Banana, and my particular favorite, Aunt Yoo Hoo. And what did Chuckles ask in return? Not much. In his own words—’a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.'” That’s when Mary completely loses it.