Part VI (continued)

Learning to Use Humor to Cope
A Humor Skills Training Program


Step 5:  Create Your Own Verbal Humor: Begin Playing with Language

Jokes often involve playing with the language itself--but not always.  The reason for devoting a separate step to word play is that jokes are generally memorized. They do not require you to use your own spontaneous skills at creating humor.  Verbal humor becomes a true coping skill when you're able to come up with your own funny lines on the spot.

While it's hard to remember it now, if you were like most kids, you got hooked on riddles in the first and second grade.  You just couldn't get enough of them, and you would repeat the same one over and over--driving your parents nuts in the process. (If you're a parent yourself, you'll remember this stage in your own kids.) The basis for many riddles is puns.  Although we often groan at puns (precisely because they're generally seen as a low level of humor), this is one of the best places to begin cultivating your verbal sense of humor, since chances are that it's where you left off in developing your own humor skills.

    A woman calls her doctor up and says, "Doctor, doctor, I just swallowed a spoon! What should I do?"
    The doctor says, "Sit down and don't stir."

    Two woman walk into one of the few remaining men's clubs in the country, and the waiter comes over and says, "I'm sorry ladies, but we only serve men here."
    One of the women says, "That's OK, we'll take two."

You probably didn't fall off your chair laughing at either of these jokes. But think of your friends who are always doing puns. Have you noticed that they think they're really pretty funny, even though you don't?  Puns are often funnier to the person who thinks them up, because it takes more mental effort to think of a pun on the spot than it does to understand it once it's told to you.

Puns are also funnier when you're having a bad day, and need a good laugh. Have you even found yourself laughing hard at something, but your mind was also telling you that it wasn't really that funny? This shows the wisdom of the body in recognizing when it needs a good cleansing laugh.  We always feel better when we have this kind of laugh.

So these are two good reasons for you to use puns as the starting point to boost your verbal humor skills, even though puns may seem like a low level of humor. And remember, the goal here is not to improve your ability to play with language so that you can keep your friends and loved ones rolling on the floor with laughter. The goal is to develop some basic skills that will enable you to take control over your mood and frame of mind, so that when you're having a bad day and could use a good laugh you can use your own spontaneous wit to create your own humor.

Professional humorists have refined the art of effortlessly and immediately seeing other possible meanings of words that come up in everyday conversation.  You can also develop this habit, and if you make an active effort to develop this skill, you'll find yourself coming up with your own puns in as little as 2-3 weeks.

An excellent starting point in learning to play with language is to look for extra meanings in the conversations you have with people.  Coming up with a comment that connects with the "wrong" meaning is the most important step in developing the quickness that most people associated with being witty.

For example, if you're on a plane and you hear the pilot say, "We'll be cruising at 37,000 feet and will briefly pass out over the lake as we leave Chicago," what might you say? Or if you're at a restaurant and a friend says there's a man eating octopus at the next table, what quip could you come up with?  If you're listening to the radio and hear a report that says that because of all the accidents linked to alcohol, the mayor has asked police to stop drinking while driving, what might you say?

Don't worry at first about whether your idea is funny or not.  Just develop the habit of noticing the extra meanings while continuing to carry on a conversation.  When you're with someone with whom you feel very comfortable make your witty remark as soon as it pops into your mind.  Your audience will be an accepting one, even if your joke doesn't leave them rolling in the aisles. The more you practice doing this, the better you'll get at coming up with funny puns and other spontaneous verbal humor.

Another important habit to develop is to look for alternate meanings in newspaper headlines, church bulletins, signs, and anywhere else you see printed language--including patients' medical records. There is often room for confusion if you're looking for it.  Once you start looking, you'll be amazed at the number of unintentional puns and other humor you find.

Here are just a few examples to get you started in the right direction.


From Patients' Medical Records

1. Patient referred to hospital by private physician with green stools.
2. Patient urinates around the clock every two hours.
3. Rx: Mycostatin vaginal suppositories.  Insert daily until exhausted.

Newspaper Headlines

1. Family Catches Fire Just in Time, Chief Says
2. Grandmother of 14 Shoots Hole in One (you need to be a golfer to get this)
3. Hospital Sued by 8 Foot Doctors

Church Bulletins

1.Don't let today's pace and stress kill you.  Let the church help.
2. At this evening's service, the sermon topic will be "What is Hell?" Come early and listen to the choir practice.


1. Use stairs for rest room
2. All of the water served here has been personally passed by the manager (in the window of a Mexican restaurant)

Homeplay for Step 5

1. General: Be on the lookout for words with extra meanings. Don't worry about whether it's funny or not. Just develop the habit of seeing an unintended meaning.

2. Look for ambiguous words in everyday conversations. Put up reminders to keep this on the "front burner." Keep a small notebook and write down the ones you notice.  Writing them down strengthens the habit of seeing them.

3. Look for double meanings in signs, headlines, patients' medical records, and all other printed materials. When possible, also jot these down in your notebook.  Make it your goal to find a few every day.

4. Make an active effort to generate as many puns as you can in everyday conversations.


Step 6:  Finding Humor in Everyday Life

One of the most important ways of getting the many benefits offered by humor is to cultivate the habit of actively looking for humor, especially on your job.

    After his recovery for gallstones, a man awakened in his hospital room to discover the stones on the same tray on which his medication had been placed.  A nurse had put them there so he could see the cause of his torture. With some effort, he was finally able to get them down.

As a nurse, you have many opportunities to exercise your sense of humor just by observing the unexpected crazy things that happen a round you.  If you work in a hospital now, try asking other patients the funniest thing they've seen since they got into the hospital.  This will help you connect with other patients, and get you started noticing things that have been there all along without your seeing them. For example, one patient was overheard telling a family member that he was suffering from "sick-as-hell anemia." A woman said to her daughter, "I have micro-orgasms in my blood."

A nurse walked into an elderly patient's room and found him in the bathroom, hunched over the toilet bowl throwing up.  She thought she would help him out by flushing the toilet.  He suddenly looked up and shouted, "My teeth are in there!"  This kind of event can't help but bring a smile to your face--even on the toughest days.

I was doing a program at a hospital recently, which had two separate divisions of the hospital in different parts of the city.  A shuttle bus ran between the two hospitals all day long.  The smaller division of the hospital was called the Madison Avenue Division. I couldn't help but laugh upon seeing painted in large letters on the side of the bus, "MAD Employees Shuttle."

In addition to keeping an eye out for the funny things on your job, look for them when you're traveling in the car.  We've already talked about looking for road signs that can be interpreted in more than one way (e.g., "Slow children at play," "Draw bridge"). Watch other people's behavior while driving. I was driving to a speaking engagement recently when I came into a traffic circle. I had to hit my brakes hard to avoid hitting a car that was backing up. It's a circle! All the driver had to do was go around in order to catch the turn he missed. I was so amazed at this that I drove around four times, just watching people's reaction to this guy.  While most people were angry, the whole scene was so absurd that I found it very funny.

I was in a new grocery store recently and had to swipe my own credit card in a machine that was unfamiliar to me. The cashier saw my hesitation, and said, "Strip down and face toward me!" I immediately turned to her and laughed. I said, "Are you sure you want me to do that?" She looked confused for a moment, and then blushed.  She was totally unaware of the other meaning of what she had been saying to customers for weeks.

    A woman gets on a bus with her 5-year-old daughter.  The rules are that children under five ride free.
    Bus Driver: "Excuse me little girl, how old are you?"
    Girl: "Four and a half."
    Bus Driver: "And when will you be five?"
    Girl: "As soon as I get off this bus."

Finally, don't forget to look for humor in what young children say and do. How can you not find humor in the above episode?

Homeplay for Step 6

1. Put Up "What's Funny About This?" Reminders

If you're someone who generally fails to see the funny side of everyday situations, put up reminders to look for humor somewhere in your home (e.g., on the refrigerator), in your car and at your office.  Sometimes it helps to imagine that you're Seinfeld or Steve Martin (choose the person who is your favorite comedian), and ask what they would find funny about the situation.  Once you've spent a couple of weeks actively asking yourself "What's funny here?" you'll have the habit of noticing what's funny without having to ask yourself.

2. Ask Friends and Colleagues About the Humor They See

Some of your friends or colleagues may already be very good at finding a light side of everyday events. Make it a point to ask them the funniest thing they've seen lately, or that's happened to them. Whatever they share with you will help you cultivate the habit of noticing funny things yourself.

3. Write it Down

Whenever you see anything that makes you laugh, write it down at the first opportunity. This will not only serve as a memory aid in sharing the incident with others (see next section); it will also strengthen the habit of noticing humor--even if you never share it with anyone. You don't have to write it down in detail, just write down enough information to capture the essential details.

One of the most innovative uses of humor I've seen occurred at a junior high school basketball game.  The game was tied with 3 seconds to go. One of the teams had the ball out of bounds under its own net.  Just before the ball was thrown in, one of the players on the in-bounding team got down on his hands and knees and started barking like a dog.  The other team was momentarily distracted, and his teammate took the pass right under the basket and made an easy shot to win the game. It was creative and hilariously funny. I wrote it down immediately.

4. Share the Humor You Observe

One of the most powerful things you can do to build up the habit of seeing the funny side of life is to share the funny things you do see with others.  The more you share your humor, the more "seeing funny" becomes a part of your daily perspective on life. It also invites others to share their funny experiences with you--which cultivates the humor habit even more. Remember, though, that sometimes "you had to be there." Don't be too disappointed if the person you share the funny incident with only gives you a chuckle.  You'll soon learn which funny experiences are just as funny when you tell them and which ones aren't.

5. Remember: Your View of What's Funny is Just as Valid as the Next Person's

Finally, keep in mind that you're the world's best expert on what's funny--to you. Your sense of humor is as unique as your thumbprint. Don't worry about the fact that you fail to see any humor in incidents that have others rolling on the floor laughing.  They also will sometimes fail to see what you find so funny.


Step 7:  Learning to Laugh at Yourself

The ability to laugh at your own flaws, weaknesses and blunders has long been recognized as a sign of maturity.  As Eleanor Roosevelt put it, "You don't grow up until you have your first good laugh at yourself."  And yet this is one of the most difficult aspects of your sense of humor to develop.  It's easy to see the humor in someone else's blunders or flaws, but it's another story when the same thing happens to us.  That's why I've put off working on this part of your sense of humor until you've already established some good humor skills in areas that have nothing to do with laughing at yourself.  If you've been making the effort to do the Homeplay for the previous steps, you will already have become a little better at laughing at yourself than you used to be.

Oscar Wilde once offered a valuable insight about the way we live our lives when he said that "Life is too important to be taken seriously."  What do you think he meant by this? I don't think he meant that you don't have to take your responsibilities, promises, work, etc. seriously.  He didn't mean that it's OK to live life with no integrity. I think he meant that the quality of our life suffers when we approach everything in a serious manner.  We lose the aliveness, joy and spontaneity we had when we were kids when we take everything so seriously--especially when we take ourselves so seriously. We also lost a powerful tool in handling the stress on our jobs!  The key here is to take your work and your responsibilities seriously, but take yourself lightly in the process.

There's a liberating quality that most people experience when they get to the point that they can laugh at themselves. We get so caught up in our anxieties, embarrassments, frustrations and upsets that we carry them around with us throughout the day.  But when we find a way to laugh at them, they lose their emotional grip on us and recede into the background. We feel at peace with the incident, even though it was very embarrassing at the moment.

Sometimes it is a physical characteristic or behavior that causes you to lose your sense of humor. It may be your weight, wrinkles, a nose that's not perfect, or an inability to remember things the way you used to.  A boy I grew up with stuttered a lot. He was terribly embarrassed by this, and others also felt awkward in talking to him. He eventually learned to master some of his own anxiety about talking (the anxiety made the stuttering worse), and also put those around him at ease, by saying things like "Hey, is there an echo in here?"

In a program I once did for Parkinson's patients, a man came up to me afterwards to chat.  In the midst of our conversation, he said, "Well, you know it's not really so bad with Parkinson's. I never have to stir my coffee anymore." This is clearly a man who has come to accept the tremors associated with his disease. Finding a way to laugh at the tremors helps him cope and helps avoid falling into a victim frame of mind.

It will provide the same help to you on the days when you wonder why you ever decided to become a nurse.

Homeplay for Step 7

1. Make a list of things you don't like about yourself.

Sometimes just writing down your sensitive zones can reduce their power over you--especially if the list gets very long.  But the real purpose of the list is to give you a basis for selecting specific target areas each day when you try to begin laughing at yourself. 

2. Divide the list into "heavy" and "minor" items, and into things you can and cannot change.

3. Share one item on your list with someone every day.

Begin with minor items and gradually build up to the heavier ones. Gaining some initial success at this will help you tackle the big ones later on. There is also real power in simply admitting (especially publicly) your sensitive zones.  AA (and other self-help) groups have long recognized this, and begin their meetings with "My name is John Smith, and I'm an alcoholic." Don't try to joke about your sensitive areas at first; just adopt the habit of admitting them.

4. Begin sharing your blunders, mistakes, and embarrassing incidents.

You can work on this while sharing the things you don't like about yourself. Start with past embarrassments, since they're generally easier to discuss. Work up to more recent ones. Again, don't worry about finding humor in them.  Just develop the habit of talking about them.

5. Begin Joking about your blunders and the things you don't like about yourself.

After you've spent some time on the above suggestions, choose one of the items on your list and put it on the "front burner" throughout the day, looking for opportunities to poke fun at it. If you find you're having trouble with this step, ask friends or colleagues to help you out in poking fun at yourself. You'll see that they're generally glad to oblige.

Ross Perot provided an excellent model for us all during the 1992 presidential race--when cartoonists were having a field day with his ears.  The entire nation roared its approval during a presidential debate when he spontaneously came up with the line, "I'm all ears."

6. Remember that no one is perfect.

Everyone makes mistakes and everyone has flaws. Keeping this in mind will help you learn to poke fun at your own imperfections.


Step 8:  Find Humor in the Midst of Stress: Using Humor to Cope

If you have actually spent a week or two doing the Homeplay for each of the previous steps, you will now have developed some good humor habits--at least on the days when you're in a good mood, and when things are going well.  The real goal of this program, however, is to enable you to use your sense of humor on the high stress days--the days when you're short staffed and everything seems to go wrong, pushing your ability to provide quality care to the limit.  With the growing number of mistakes that seem to be occurring in patient care these days, it is essential that you have some skills that enable you to talk control of your frame of mind on these days.

Some people who go through this program automatically find themselves able to use humor to cope when they get to Step 8. Others find that their sense of humor still abandons them on the tough days. If this is you, your goal should be to simply keep doing the kinds of things you've been doing, but make a concerted effort to do them in the midst of stress.  Start with predictable, everyday stressors to ease into the habit of seeing the light side regardless of what's happening.  The following guidelines will help you build this skill.

Homeplay for Step 8

1. Make a list of commonly occurring hassles and problems (especially on your job).  Be determined to find a way to maintain a lighter attitude when these come up, while remaining committed to your usual competence and professionalism in handling the problem.

2. Think about what it means in these situations to see the glass "half full," instead of "half empty."

3. Ask friends/colleagues to help you find a way to react in a lighter way when difficult situations come up.

4. Practice finding humor in the midst of other people's problems (keep it to yourself!).  Then look for similarities to problems/conflicts of your own.

5. Look for humor in past stressful situations of your own.  It's easier to see the funny side when you're not emotionally caught up in the stress of the moment. 

6. Develop the habit of asking yourself, "What will I find funny about this situation next week?"  Even if it doesn't seem funny now, it's real progress if you can imagine what would be funny about it in the future.

7. Keep funny props in your office, car, or at home which serve as reminders that you want to find a light side of stressful situations.

8. Look for cartoons that are meaningfully connected to the stress in your own job. They serve as a reminder of your commitment to find humor under stress, and help you keep a positive, upbeat attitude alive in your contact with patients. It is no coincidence that Dilbert cartoons are posted on nurses and other healthcare staff's desks or bulletin boards all over the country.

9. Ask yourself, "How would Charlie Chaplin (substitute your favorite comedian) react in this situation? Imagine that you are that person.


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