Keeping a Sense of Humor: Yes, You Can (and must)

The early weeks of a new semester can be a challenge to smile through when an instructor is on a different campus or college each day. At one college, the books for a new class are coming in to the bookstore, but seemingly, only three at a time. At another college, the parking pass is not working and you can’t get into the parking lot. At still another college, someone with whom you were to meet left a little early; can you come back tomorrow? All of these problems would be minor if you worked at the same college every day and were there to take care of these annoyances, but you don’t work at the same college every day: you’re the Freeway Flyer.

Fortunately, there is a technique that can work in many cases to help you deal with frustration. With practice (and it takes practice), you can de-stress your life and impress your peers. Attempt to look for the humor in a situation and appreciate it. Almost any state of affairs has something funny about it; challenge yourself to find it. Emily Dickinson’s dear friend, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, said “There is no defense against adverse fortune which is so effectual as an habitual sense of humor.” Make it a habit to look for the amusing aspects of a situation.

In the Seventies, I had a crush on the Mash television show character, Hawkeye Pierce. It was not only Alan Alda’s good looks; it was his knack at finding something funny in every situation. It occurred to the young me that humor gave one a sense of self-control. Also, if you can throw out one-liners, you may not come across as vulnerable as you feel. Humor is right up there with spring breaks as a way to stay sane and keep from hurting yourself. Comedian Bill Cosby says, “If you can find humor in anything, you can survive it.” Finding the humor may just take practice.

Now that you’re a comic genius, you can share the humor with your classes. After all, studies have shown that students shown cartoons and jokes related to the concepts taught received higher scores on multiple choice exams than students who were not taught with humor (Ziv, 1988). For fun, check out “Fifty fun things for professors to do on the first day of class” and then don’t actually do most of them. But, reading about them will give you a laugh.

Of course, this doesn’t work for everyone and humor should only be used by instructors who are comfortable doing so and are good at it. Avoid the use of sarcasm: it can have a negative effect. Be careful, too; there have been times in the past when I have been accused of being sarcastic when I thought I was only being exceedingly clever. Humor, like most things, is in the eye of the beholder. Know your audience; in fact, what’s sauce for the goose at one college isn’t necessarily sauce for the gander at another. Once I received a humorous email at College A, which got a major laugh at College B, but received dead silence at College C. Different reaction, different day.

Share the joy if you like, but remember that laughter is good for your own mental health. Try to find the humor in day to day situations and see if your stress level goes lower as a result. Also, try to end your days with a laugh. There is a good reason to watch late night television. For example, tune in and watch David Letterman’s nightly Top Ten List. If you can’t stay up that late, check out the web archives. Or, have fun keeping your spouse awake while you are busy laughing at a Janet Evanovich novel. And, finally, try not to take it all too seriously; after all, today’s fiasco will be forgotten tomorrow and you will have new challenges to put into perspective.

Ziv, A. Teaching and Learning with Humor: Experiment and Replication. Journal of Experimental Education, 57, 1988.

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