Part VI

Learning to Use Humor to Cope
A Humor Skills Training Program


You are now well acquainted with the ways in which humor and laughter contribute to good physical and emotional health.  They are a powerfully in helping you provide the quality of care you want to provide--even in the midst of those high stress days.  There are also numerous other work-related benefits to keeping your sense of humor on the job, which have not been discussed here.  If you are interested in learning more about humor in the workplace, see .

The key question now is, how do you go about improving your own humor skills in order to get yourself to the point where your sense of humor doesn't abandon you on the kind of high-stress days that only nurses can understand? I have put together a hands-on humor skill development program that is a reflection of the 20 years I spent doing basic research on humor.  The core elements of that program are presented here.

You will have to read the description of the program to answer test questions on this part of the course. If you want to reap the real benefits of humor in managing your own job stress, boosting the morale of your fellow nurses and patients, and maximizing the quality of care you deliver to patients, you will need to take the initiative to continue following the guidelines offered here even after the formal course work is completed and you've passed the exam.  How much you gain from this skill development program will be entirely up to you.  To maximize your benefits, and help insure that you stay with the program until you've completed all the steps, find a partner (either someone you live with or work with) who will agree to go through the steps with you. 

Each step below will first contain a brief description of the step, followed by "Homeplay" for that step.  The Homeplay consists of a list of things to do for a period of one or two weeks that will boost the skills associated with that step. The more Homeplay you do, the more gains you'll make. 


Take the Sense of Humor Pre-Test Before Starting the Program

In the Appendix to this course (after the references), you will find a Sense of Humor scale. The Sense of Humor scale reflects the areas of skill development emphasized in the Humor Skills Program.  Make two copies of the test, one to be completed before you begin Step 1 and one to be completed after you've finished the program.  Once you've taken the Sense of Humor test as a pre-test, do not look at it again until after you've completed the program and taken the test a second time as a post-test. You can then compare the results and see just how much you've gained in going through the program.

Step 1:  Discover the Nature of Your Own Unique Sense of Humor

    An elderly woman was taking care of her 3-year-old grandson and took him to the beach.  As the child made sand castles, she dozed off.  As she slept, a huge wave dragged the child off to sea. When she awoke, she was devastated, and fell on her knees and prayed.  "God, if you save my grandson, I promise I'll make it up to you. I'll do whatever you ask."

    Suddenly, a huge wave tossed the child back on the beach at her feet.  She saw that there was color in his cheeks, and that he was breathing. He was alive!  She hesitated, put her hand on her hips, and looked skyward as she said sharply, "He had a hat, You know!"

When you got to the punch line, did you laugh? Or at least smile? Like most humor, some people will find this little story very funny, while others won't think it's very funny at all.  In making an effort to improve your sense of humor, you need to keep in mind that humor is like beauty.  It's in the eye of the beholder.  There is no right or wrong when it comes to what's funny.  If you think it's funny, it's funny!  While we may disagree on how funny any particular event or idea is, the important thing is that you find something to laugh at every day.

The first thing to do is determine the nature of your own sense of humor.  What kinds of movies, TV sit coms, cartoons, jokes, etc. to you find very funny?  What kinds of humor do you dislike, or react indifferently to? To get a better feel for this, spend a week or two just jotting down examples of the kinds of humor you like as you come across them.  After a week or so, see if you can find a pattern.

Another way to think about your sense of humor is in terms of whether you are someone who often initiates humor, or mainly enjoys the humor of others. When you do make others laugh, is it by telling jokes or funny stories, coming up with your own spontaneous witty remarks, or sharing a funny incident you observed or experienced? Do you have a dry sense of humor?  Do you act funny? Are you good at laughing at yourself?  Do you find things to laugh at only when you're in a good mood, or do you keep your sense of humor under stress?

Give yourself a week or two to think about all this, and then try to write down in some detail just what kind of sense of humor you have. You'll find that it helps to talk to friends and family members who know you well. As you compare notes on things you do and do not find funny, you'll gradually find a picture emerging of your unique sense of humor.

To move more quickly in doing this, make it a point to immerse yourself in humor every day. Hang around your funniest friends, go to (or rent) comedy movies, read the comics in the newspapers, seek out the cartoons in magazines, and read funny books. As you do this, keep a notebook with you and make notes about what you thought was funny (and why, if you know why).  But be sure to not become too analytical about this and make it work.  Do it with a friend, and make it fun!

    "Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process."

                  (E. B. White)


If you find the time, try also thinking about the important people in your life who you think have influenced the development of your sense of humor.  For an especially interesting experience, talk to your parents or others who knew you when you were a child, and see if you can find clues to your present sense of humor in the humor you showed as a child or adolescent.

Homeplay for Step 1

The Homeplay for Step 1 is built into the above paragraphs.  For the rest of the steps a separate Homeplay section will be included.

Step 2:  Cultivate a Playful Attitude and a Sense of Fun--Overcome Terminal Seriousness

Have you ever noticed how much more often young children laugh than adults?  Is this a coincidence, or do we lose something as we get older that is somehow central to our sense of humor? After spending 20 years as a researcher studying this question, I have become convinced that as we get older, many adults lose the quality that I consider to be the basic foundation for your sense of humor.  It's the sense of fun and the playful attitude that young children bring to everything they do. Among both children and adults, it's when we are within this playful frame of mind that we are most likely to see humor around us, or to create our own humor.  That's why it's the basic foundation for your sense of humor.

Before you begin working on specific humor skills, spend some time making the effort to let out the playful child within you.  As you do this, you will notice that your own natural sense of humor will begin to re-emerge.

During my 20 years as a researcher studying humor and play, I also studied the play behavior of animals.  It's easy to make a strong case for the view that when animals in the wild are playing, they are practicing basic skills, which will later be essential for their survival. They engage in play fighting, chasing, wrestling, jumping, etc.  When they become adults, these skills developed during play will be used to defend their lives. So play is important for their very survival.  If you've ever been around young kittens or puppies, you've seen how much time they spend in this kind of play.

So what does this have to do with humor? Humor is intellectual play.  It's play with ideas.  And your sense of humor is just as important for your psychological survival as physical play is for animals' physical survival. That's why so many cancer patients say, "If it hadn't been for my sense of humor, I would never have survived the treatments, let alone the disease." They recognize the power of humor to help them cope.

There is an old saying, "The past is a canceled check, you can't spend it any more.  The future is a promissory note, which might not be paid off. The present is cash, spend it wisely." When you allow the playful child within you to come out and play a little while every day, an interesting thing happens. You become much better at "living in the moment," and you are assured of some joy in your life each day. Your own sense of humor will begin to flower, and you will find yourself enjoying work more (in spite of being overworked with inadequate budgets, insufficient time with patients, etc.), and bringing a more uplifting spirit to every patient you see.

Homeplay for Step 2

1) Think about how playful/serious you are on a typical day. Are you always pretty serious, or do you have times when the spirit of play and fun comes alive in you? 

2) Think about the situations in which you're always serious, and those in which you can be playful.  Make it a point to spend more time in situations, which bring out your sense of play.  Also think about this in connection with specific people.  Spend more time around the people who make you laugh and bring out your own sense of fun.

3) Write down what you think would be the benefits in your own life if you could strengthen this ability to adopt a playful outlook on a daily basis. Also discuss this with your friends and loved ones. (Reminder: This doesn't mean you should be playful all the time. The goal is to develop the ability to be playful when you choose to.)

4) When the opportunity arises, spend some time playing with young children or young animals. In the case of children, try to play at their level.

5) Make a list of things you have fun doing. Do at least one each day.

6) Put up reminders in key places (refrigerator, desk, etc.) to be playful.  Take a silly photo of yourself and keep it with you at all times.

7) Tell your friends, family that you'd like them to help you learn to lighten up and be more playful.

Step 3:  Laugh More Often and More Heartily

Many of the health benefits associated with humor appear to result from the physical activity of laughter. And, of course, there's also the fact that you simply feel better after a good belly laugh. The problem, of course, is that you often don't feel like laughing.  We generally laugh when we find something funny, and we are rarely amused on our most stressful days. As you go through this Humor Training Program, you will gradually start to laugh more than you have in the past (even on your worst days) because you will become more skilled at finding things to laugh at.  But you can also think of laughing as a skill.

An 80-year-old woman said that her cancer had been in remission for over 30 years. When asked what she attributed her long life to, she said, "Well, I haven't died."

    "I can't express anger.  I grow tumors, instead"

              (Woody Allen)

    "What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul."

              (Yiddish proverb)

We all laughed more as children than we do as adults, but some children and adults just seem to have a temperament than leads them to laugh more than others when they find  something funny.  Some people are real belly laughers, while others rarely let out more than a chuckle.

Zen Buddhists believe that if you start off the day with a laugh, you'll be fine the rest of the day. While a good morning laugh may not guarantee your well being throughout the day, it certainly gets you started in the right direction.  Think of laughter as a stress deodorant.  For some of you, one application in the morning may get you through the day. If you're a nurse, however, you're going to need repeated applications throughout the day.


 The first thing to do to strengthen this part of your sense of humor is to decide whether or not you're a good belly laugher.  Think about how hard and how long you laugh when you find something really funny.  Ask your friends, family and colleagues for their views.  If you find that you don't laugh very often, and don't have much of a belly laugh when you do laugh, make the effort to work on this part of your sense of humor.

Homeplay for Step 3

1) Spend the next week or so laughing more often and more intensely than you usually do.  Force yourself to laugh more in situations where other people are laughing.  You'll feel self-conscious about this at first, but will gradually become a more natural belly laugher.

2) Put up reminders to laugh at home, in your car, and at work (remember to use good judgment about when laughter is and is not appropriate).

3) Spend more time around people who are good laughers.  Use their laughter to boost your own.

4) Listen to comedy audiotapes (many libraries have comedy tapes) while driving to and from work, and force yourself to laugh more when you find a segment funny.

5) Try faking laughter when you're angry or anxious, and notice the effect it has on the way you feel.

Step 4:  Practice Telling Jokes and Stories

If you've never tried to tell jokes and stories in the past, start with one joke or story--and be sure you think it's funny! Write the joke down to be sure you've got it right, and make a conscious effort to memorize it.  How many times have you heard people tell a joke, and then stumble when they get to the punch line, because they've forgotten it?  This is the most common mistake made by novice joke-tellers.  One way or another, they find a way to butcher the punch line!

Once you've got the joke into memory, begin by telling it to a couple of close friends or family members--anyone you trust and feel comfortable with. This will reduce the embarrassment you feel if you do  botch it up, and give you the opportunity to build up some joke-telling skills in a forgiving environment. Once you've told the joke several times, and get the delivery of the punch line down, then try telling it to anyone you come in contact with.  Tell the same joke over and over, and note how much better you get with each telling.  Once you've gotten to the point that you can tell it smoothly and effortlessly, you're ready to take on a second joke.

Don't try to learn too many jokes at once. Choose one, write it down and practice telling it before moving on to another. Once you've told the joke a few times, it will always be available in your memory. You'll be amazed at how quickly your joke repertoire builds. Don't be afraid to ask people, "Have you heard any good jokes lately?"  In social situations, this will generally start a round of joke telling, and you'll have several new jokes to choose from to learn as your "joke of the day."

When you hear a joke you want to learn, seize upon the moment to try to repeat it.  Say to the person who told it, "Wait, let me see if I've got it.  There's a Baptist, a Catholic, and Hindu walking down the street . . ."  This gives the original teller the opportunity to correct you and say something like, "No, no, it's a preacher, a priest and a rabbi . . ."  Trying to tell the joke right after you hear it is the best way to start getting it into memory, and the immediate feedback you get helps you be sure you're got the joke, and especially the punch line, right. Then, at your first opportunity, write down the joke--or at least the punch line--on any piece of paper you can get your hands on.  You can later practice the joke as described above.

The 10 Commandments of Joke-Telling

1. Don't laugh at your own joke/story (especially in advance).

2. Don't try to tell jokes/stories that you don't know well.

3. Be sure the punch line is at the end.  Don't telegraph what 's coming.

4. Don't apologize if others don't laugh (e.g., "Well, I'm really not very good at  telling jokes").

5. Don't try to explain it if people don't laugh. It still won't be funny.

6. Avoid "put-down" humor with groups of people.  It's just a matter of time until  you offend someone.

7. Be sensitive to the social situation.  Know when any kind of humor, or a particular kind of joke/story would be inappropriate or in bad taste.

8. Don't overdo puns. Remember, puns are always funnier to the person who creates them than to those who hear them.  But also remember that puns are funnier when you're under stress.  So use them to take control of your mood by reducing the upset of the moment and creating a frame of mind conducing to sustaining a positive attitude all day long.

9.   Remember that when telling personal stories or anecdotes, in some cases, "you had to be there." Learn to anticipate the key information you need to communicate to make the humor fully understandable.  Also learn to distinguish between those situations where you really did and did not need to be there.

10. Know when to stop joking and be serious. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to communicate with someone who refuses to take you seriously.

Homeplay for Step 4

1. Learn and tell one new  joke every day. Tell it to as many people as you can.

2. Ask your friends and colleagues at work to tell you their favorite joke or funny story. Develop the habit of asking people if they've heard any good jokes lately; it will open up the door for you to practice telling your own.

3. When you hear a joke that is funny to you, a) write it down as soon as you can or repeat it to the person who told it to you (ask them to repeat it if you're unable to retell it), b) tell it to someone else at the first opportunity. This will help put it into memory. If you tell it two or three times right away, you won't forget it in the weeks ahead.

4. Listen to tapes of your favorite comedians. Select a few of their jokes that you think are funny and practice telling them to your friends. Imitate the delivery style of that comedian to build your own delivery skill.


Previous Page   Next Page