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It may seem like tough times, but finding things to chuckle about is a good way to cope, say experts

A-maze-ing Laughter, a 2009 bronze sculpture by Yue Minjun, is pictured in English Bay in Vancouver on Dec. 16, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
A-maze-ing Laughter, a 2009 bronze sculpture by Yue Minjun, is pictured in English Bay in Vancouver on Dec. 16, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Being stuck in hospital in a foreign country with salmonella poisoning is no laughing matter, but Tracey Hawthorn says finding some humour in her predicament helped her get through it.

What the Kelowna, B.C., woman found amusing was that while abroad, she couldn't get the thing she wanted most to deal with her bad stomach and dehydration: soda crackers and ginger ale.

So when she finally did savour the items, on a flight home surrounded by people sipping free alcoholic cocktails, Hawthorn laughed and eventually wrote two poems about the incident — an ode to the soda cracker and another to ginger ale.

"One thing that got me through everything is my humour," she said.

"I never lost my sense of humour, not for a minute."

There is a growing body of study on the use of humour, amusement and levity for well-being and positive health outcomes.

Heading into 2023 with financial strain, global unrest and climate change all threatening to dampen anyone's good mood, focusing on the lighter side of life may be beneficial.

HealthLinkBC, the province's online health resource, says humour therapy — the use of smiles and laughter to aid healing — allows people to view chronic disease as more manageable, while also allowing the release of fear, anger and stress.

"All of which can harm the body over time," says its website.

Submitted by Tracey Hawthorn
Submitted by Tracey Hawthorn

Hawthorn has been a physiotherapist and well-being practitioner for three decades. She calls herself the "queen of fun," and seeks ways of using humour and levity to improve outcomes for her clients.

"You don't want a person to focus on their pain because that's what they do all the time so you want to find other things, and humour is a good one," she said.

Train your humour muscle

While most people know the age-old saying, "laughter is the best medicine," sometimes the hard part is finding amusement, humour or laughter during stressful times in life.

Willibald Ruch, a professor of psychology at the University of Zurich in Switzerland who has been studying humour since the 1980s, has found that it's something that can be worked at, to reduce stress and improve life satisfaction.

"Basically we all have a certain level of humour when we grow up but when the seriousness of life starts … some people temporarily reduce the amount of humour that they produce," he said.

A study of his from 2018 put to test concepts written about by American pioneer humour researcher Paul McGhee.

McGhee has written several books such as Humor: The Lighter Path to Resilience and Health and Humor As Survival Training for a Stressed-out World: The 7 Humor Habits Program.

With control groups, Ruch found that those who used the habits such as being more playful, telling jokes, finding humour in everyday life and laughing at themselves resulted in increased life satisfaction and happiness.

"You don't really have to train humour, you only have to give yourself the permission," he said.

Know your audience, though

Ruch and Hawthorn both admit though that while humour can aid in our enjoyment of life, it can also do harm if it is used in a negative way, such as putting people down or laughing at another's expense.

"Really know your audience because humour ... can fall very flat in some ways or it can really connect," said Hawthorn.

Ruch's simplest advice is for people to spend a small amount of time at the end of each day writing down the three things they found the most amusing from the day.

"It's such a minimalist intervention," he said. "You are focusing more on what's actually funny during your day and this shifts the mindset of people."