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Humor as a Coping Mechanism: How to Find Joy in Tough Times

Humor as a Coping Mechanism: How to Find Joy in Tough Times

Are you amid challenging circumstances, curious about how humor could help as a coping mechanism?

You’re in luck, because you’ve just stumbled upon a troupe of professional clowns (yes, real-life clowns) who are ready to guide you to joy.

Humor isn’t just about belly laughs; it’s a powerful tool to ease stress, lift spirits, and connect with others. Our clowns have witnessed these benefits firsthand for people in crisis.

This post explores the effectiveness of humor as a coping mechanism. You’ll also learn how to make humor a priority in your life.

Hop in the clown car — it’s time to get this show on the road!

We’ll make the following pit stops:

Humor: How Does the Funniest Coping Mechanism Measure Up?

A group of clowns and friends posing in front of bus
Your friends for the duration. (Location: El Salvador)

Coping mechanisms are as numerous as the number of oversized shoes at a clown convention: there are hundreds of options. But how does humor measure up?

According to Positive Psychology, the literature has identified five coping strategies:

  1. Emotion-focused
  2. Problem-focused
  3. Meaning-focused
  4. Social
  5. Avoidance-focused

Within each of these strategies, you can tap into mechanisms that are either healthy or unhealthy. Unhealthy coping mechanisms may avoid stress, but the results are harmful. Healthy coping mechanisms provide benefits without harm. 

Can you find the funny in this table of coping mechanisms?

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Emotion-focused strategy
  • Busyness
  • Failing to talk about emotions
  • Toxic positivity
  • Cognitive reframing
  • Meditation and breathing techniques
  • Journaling
  • Positive thinking and forgiveness
  • Laughter 😄
Problem-focused strategy
  • Over-analyzing
  • Determining an alternative solution
Meaning-focused strategy
  • Over-thinking
  • Finding the “good”
Social strategy
  • Isolation
  • Venting
  • Eliciting the help of a counselor or therapist
  • Talking to a trusted friend
Avoidance-focused strategy
  • Substance-use
  • Smoking
  • Denial and disengagement
  • Impulsive spending
  • Overeating
  • Self-harm
  • Controlled distraction
  • Exercise

Information in the table sourced from Positive Psychology


Did you see it?

Laughter is listed under the Healthy/Emotion-focused strategy.

However, this list of coping mechanisms is not exhaustive. Can you imagine where else laughter might fit in on the chart?

What‌ does humor as a coping mechanism actually look like in practice?

Humor can shift emotions by changing our body chemistry and reframing situations. It can shift meaning by allowing an optimistic view to emerge. Socially, humor can connect us with others and nurture feelings of acceptance.

Cruising to Well-being: Humor’s Astonishing Gifts

A clown holds the hand of an old woman in Myanmar.
Sharing smiles with people experiencing displacement. (Location: Myanmar)

Light-hearted, jolly humor and positive, re-framing humor are our favorite coping mechanisms.

Yes, we’re totally biased. But humor’s benefits are mostly attributed to these types of positive humor.

What are humor’s benefits? Buckle up because this is a long list:

  • Physical benefits
    • Produces beta-endorphins (to replace cortisol), dopamine (to feel pleasure and relax), and oxytocin (to feel warm and fuzzy toward others)
    • Fun Fact: Researchers at Oxford have found that our pain threshold actually increases about 10% after laughing for 15 minutes.
    • Fills lungs with oxygen-rich air, energizing the body and improving blood flow, vascular function, and flexibility
    • Circulates more blood, stimulating and protecting blood vessels and heart muscles
    • Relaxes muscles and eases tension
    • Stabilizes blood-pressure
    • Brings a sense of calm
  • Psychological benefits
Clowns gather around a non-clown man as they all celebrate with smiles.
Celebrating life with new friends. (Location: Brazil)
  • Cognitive benefits
    • Improves
      • Brain function
      • Memory
      • Alertness
      • Problem-solving ability
    • Breaks down mental barriers and fosters an openness
    • Increased creativity
  • Emotional benefits
    • Intrapersonal:
      • Replaces despair with hope
      • Neutralizes negative emotions
      • Gives courage and strength to persevere
      • Lightens burdens
      • Adds joy and enthusiasm to life
      • Helps us find new meaning
    • Interpersonal:
      • Defuses conflict 
      • Enhances teamwork and bonding
      • Subordinate job satisfaction and commitment
      • Enhances personal attractiveness
      • Enhances feelings of safety

Humor certainly can’t do it all.

As I shared in a post last year, I leaned on humor through cancer treatment and recovery. But my treatment also required analyzing information and taking a thoughtful approach to solve problems (the realm of Problem-focused coping).

Stress and Anxiety Take a Comedic Detour

A clown dressed as a chickenn throws a bucket of water in the face of another clown.
Comedy for those who need it most? Hello! We’re Clowns Without Borders. (Location: Guatemala)

Feeling tempted to indulge in a comedy binge to ease stress or alleviate anxiety?

Embrace it!

If you’re craving laughter, take it as your body’s way of signaling — in bright red flashing lights — the need for an emotional release, a disruption of stress hormones, or a break in a negative thought cycle.

Hit the Humor Gas Pedal with This Clown Pro Tip

Tip: Give humor a starring role in your life.

Professional clowns prioritize humor by planning for it. Case in point: They spend hours planning performances. To get the maximum amount of laughs at a show, they plan the who (casting), what (rehearsal), where + when (venue selection + dates), and why (learning about their audience).

So, go on and plan that funny movie, comedy show, or Humor Professional Certificate class (no joke). Bonus tip: half the fun is anticipating fun.

With more humor in your life, you’ll get calmer, more relaxed, and even sleep better.

Want to really kick up your laugh life? Incorporate humor into your every day.

Humor Habits to Avoid Potholes In Your Daily Commute

A child blows a bubble during a clown show in Zimbabwe.
Playing with bubbles! (Location: Zimbabwe)

Add a pinch of humor to your daily routine.

What Will You Play Today?

Clowns bloom amidst play, spontaneity, and connection with others.

What tickles your funny bone? Consider engaging in a creative project, declaring a board game night (my family’s go-to lately), or playing an epic match of Capture the Flag.

At work, can you pose a fun activity to get people to think about a recurring challenge in a new way?

Embrace the Unexpected Like a Clown

Clowns approach new challenges with creativity, adaptability, and a fearlessness — to absurdity and to the delight of their audiences.

Welcome the unexpected like a clown. Turn mishaps into moments of laughter and practice saying “yes” to spontaneous activities (like unplanned road trips 😉).

Embracing the unexpected can lead to personal growth and fresh perspectives as you navigate the unexpected twists and turns of life.

Are You Up for the Challenge?

Take CWB’s laughter challenge and learn how to steer into humor as a habit — one that makes life a lot of fun.

CWB laughter challenge blog post card

Using Humor to Cope with Trauma: A CWB Example

Clowns Without Borders (CWB) uses humor to bring joy to children and communities in crisis. Our work shows the power of humor as a coping mechanism in even the most traumatic situations.

By providing laughter and moments of respite, we help individuals find strength in the face of adversity. We call it resilience through laughter.

Anya’s Story

Anya, age 8, left her hometown in Ukraine after the war started in early 2022. She resettled in Poland, but life continued to be stressful and scary. Plus, she missed her home, school, and friends.

In November 2022, Clowns Without Borders-USA arrived at Anya’s resettlement center in Brasov and she attended a clown show. Anya played, lept in the air, and laughed. She said,

“I am so happy. I don’t remember the last time I was this happy.”

Girl smiling and clapping
Anya clapping and leaping with joy at a clown show.
Girl dancing with performing clowns
(Location: Poland)

Conclusion

Humor is a powerful coping mechanism that can transform our perspective and elevate our well-being.

By incorporating humor into your life every day, you can find joy and connection even in the toughest of times.

In the colorful journey of life, may laughter be your constant companion.

Clown feeling a child's arm muscles

For $11 a month, you can bring a new child to a clown show every month of the year.

Clowns Without Borders is a registered 501(c)(3) and our Tax ID is 20-4102508. Check donations may be mailed to PO Box 1353, Bozeman, MT 59771All donations are tax-deductible to the extent allowable by law.

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CWB “Joy Maker” monthly donor

2 Comments
  • Chip Daly
    October 18, 2023

    Thanks again for reminding me about the power of laughter. Even as a clown, I sometimes “forget” to laugh, and I need reminders. Plus it reminds me to tell others about the power. I have a friend who has a sister in the hospital and not doing so great. I sent this along to her in hopes that it will help! It helped me this morning!

    • Maggie Cunha, MPH
      October 18, 2023

      Same, Chip! Being adjacent to clowns and writing about laughter helps, but reminders for humor are still necessary and welcome. I hope your friend’s sister feels supported by the post. Thank you for sharing it!

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