How humour can improve your mental health

  • The ability to detach from a problem and look at it from an outsider’s perspective is a good way to handle stress
  • Make a joke out of a situation to take away its power so it becomes easier to handle
Dannie Aildasani |

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Turns out, laughter really is the best medicine!

You’ve probably seen millions of memes about coronavirus by now – from last year’s toilet paper panic when people were sitting on rolls of tissue à la Game of Thrones, to jokes about how we’re all saving the world by watching Netflix in our pyjamas. As it turns out, these ridiculous memes can really benefit our mental health.

In their book Prisoners of our Thoughts, Dr Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundon explain how humour allows us to detach and look at a situation from a different perspective. If you’re viewing a problem as an outsider, rather than concentrating on how it affects you personally, it can put distance between yourself and the difficulties you confront and make them easier to handle.

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There’s a difference between detachment and denial. Denial is refusing to acknowledge an issue; it isn’t healthy, because pretending a problem doesn’t exist won’t make it go away. Meanwhile, self-detachment is a mindset you choose to have; you’re acknowledging there is a problem but deciding to take a step back and be an observer.

Detachment can take the sting out of insecurities and fears – for example, if you’re embarrassed about the way you laugh, making a joke about it and saying it out loud can help you realise that it’s not such a big deal.

Here are a few more ways you can use humour to detach yourself from stressful situations.

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Go to the extremes

If you are facing something frustrating (such as studying for your DSEs), imagine a similar but far more extreme version of your situation. Keep making it more and more ridiculous in your mind until it’s so silly that you have to laugh.

Here’s an example: you’re studying so much for your DSEs that it takes over your life. You’re dreaming scientific formulas and thinking Confucius quotes. One night, your parents catch you in the kitchen in the middle of the night doing maths equations in your sleep! Try to one-up yourself by taking the situation to the most ridiculous level.

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Imagine the unexpected

Humour often relies on the element of surprise and defying expectations. Thinking of the most absurd twist that could happen in a situation can take the stress out of it.

Say you’ve been panicking about a maths exam. You’re studying for it day and night. What’s the most ridiculous thing that could happen? Sitting down and seeing the toughest question is “1+1=?”?

The reverse could be as amusing. You’ve spent all that time studying and you get a question that says: “If two trains leave Tsuen Wan at the same time, how fast can a pink dolphin swim when it’s sad?”.

Realising it would be impossible for anyone to prepare for that is worthy of a giggle.

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Make it a TV show

Pretend you’re in a sitcom. How would you (as a TV character) face the situation? Remember that some of the funniest shows are about the absurdities of everyday life. The Office doesn’t have any crazy plot lines; it’s just about people at work and the problems they encounter.

You could also imagine your favourite TV character facing your situation. How would they handle it? Doing this helps you frame your problem in a lighthearted way and shows you how people can deal with stressful situations with a smile.

So go ahead and imagine some hilarious scenarios, and remind yourself that you can handle what life throws at you, and laughter will definitely help.

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