by Larry H. Pastor, M.D.
A resiliency strength is a strength, attitude, belief, habit, or behavior that we rely on when going through tough times, in order to help deal with negative feelings, soften the pain of loss, find motivation, and get our life back on track. Every person has their own unique mixture of various resiliency strengths, and a few particular ones, called “signature strengths”, that we rely on most. Also, everyone has the capacity to discover and develop new strengths in order to become stronger and better able to withstand life’s challenges. Wit, Humor, Irony, and Playfulness – which can be conveniently abbreviated as “WHIP” – are not mere forms of levity but on the contrary a very serious and efficacious survival tool, or resiliency strength, in the face of adverse life experiences.
Wit, Humor, Irony, Playfulness (WHIP) helps us to bear tragedy and lighten moments that would otherwise become unbearable. Concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl called humor “one of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.” Like garlic repelling a vampire, humor wards off pessimism and despair. In extreme conditions, ‘gallows humor’ serves as an act of symbolic defiance against a cruel fate or enemy: in the Vietnam war, for example, American POW’s renamed the site of their brutal ordeal of captivity in North Vietnam’s Hoa Lo prison as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
WHIP can keep us from taking ourselves and our problems too seriously, and can illustrate ironic truths otherwise too awkward to acknowledge. Great leaders bearing heavy burdens such as Abraham Lincoln used WHIP to keep grim matters at bay. Ronald Reagan, running for president against incumbent Jimmy Carter, tackled the topic of the nation’s economic woes – and countered the general pessimism in America at the time – by telling voters, “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job; Depression is when you lose your job; and Recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his job.”
Unlike sarcasm (a form of verbal aggression which can offend and alienate the recipient), genuine humor brings pleasure, insight, a new perspective, and a bond of connection between the dispenser and recipient. Moods and attitudes can be contagious, and in group survival settings, laughter has an infectious quality that uplifts the group and unites individuals into a community, experiencing the same (positive) emotion at the same time.
Humor activates brain regions needed for problem-solving that are inhibited by fear and suspicion. According to Laurence Gonzalez, (n.1) (n.2) “there is evidence that laughter can send chemical signals to actively inhibit the firing of nerves in the amygdala, thereby dampening fear.” In fact it is nothing less than remarkable that wherever there is extreme privation and danger, there is also WHIP, tempering fear and re-motivating individuals for survival. Louis Zamperini, a bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, endured horrific abuse and depredations along with other P.O.W.’s in Japanese prison camps. Each morning the allied POW’s were forced to bow to Emperor Hirohito as an act of humiliation by their Japanese captors. Within the camps, however, humor served as a statement of defiance as well as a brief respite from daily pain and torture: a “favorite [form of defiance] involved saving up intestinal gas, explosively voluminous thanks to chronic dysentery, prior to tenko [morning roll call]. When the men were ordered to bow toward the emperor, the captives would pitch forward in concert and let thunderclaps fly for Hirohito.” (n3.)
Sam Watkins’ iconic memoir of life as an infantry private in the civil war would be unbearably grim if not for his ability to invoke WHIP time and again to lighten the burden of living in constant proximity to disfigurement and death. After a general resigned in dissent from the prevailing strategy, Watkins observes, “Both generals and privates may resign from the Army; the only difference is that generals get to go home, whereas privates get to be hanged for desertion.” Watkins returns to a variation on this theme after his regiment suffers a bloody defeat on the battlefield: “I guess when a private screws up, he loses his life; but when a general screws up, he loses his entire country.”(n.4) Thus does WHIP serve resiliency by keeping despair at bay.
Ultimately, knowing that one can still laugh gives one a sense that life is valuable and worth fighting for. National Geographic researcher Dan Buettner traveled the world in search of the world’s happiest people. He found the inhabitants of Monterrey, Mexico to be among the world’s most thriving. Despite the major social problems of Mexico including poverty, crime, drug cartels, and corruption, Buettner found humor key to the well-being of the people of Monterrey. A local scholar put it thusly, “Mexico has an amazing ability to laugh in the face of the hardship and thereby make it more tolerable. We laugh at sickness, poverty, and even death. We even have a holiday to celebrate death, November 2, the Day of the Dead, is one of the biggest holidays of the year.”(n.5)
In contrast to the popular view that humor is a superficial diversion from life’s more serious matters, WHIP proves to be an indispensable skill for psychological survival and recovery. A well-developed sense of humor has been called “a vital organ for survival.” If in fact some resiliency strengths are more essential than others, no doubt WHIP is one of the core resiliency strengths.
A comic mind is as much an artistic genius as a concert pianist or a master painter. When millions of viewers tuned into comedian Jay Leno’s Tonight Show monologue every night before bed, we all did so not just for a few laughs but for some clues, found in humor, as to how to deal with a scary and difficult world. After the horrific 9/11 attacks of September 11, 2001, for example, Leno quipped, “More details coming out now about spoiled rich kid Osama Bin Laden … he inherited $80 million at age 13. He ran it up to $300 million through smart investments, construction, oil and gas investment. This way, he can use the money in his war against capitalism.” We laughed because Leno could help us temporarily view Bin Laden as a spoiled, hypocritical brat, rather than an implacable foe.
A sense of humor is as innate to the human mind as an ear for music or an eye for art. Therefore, anyone can begin go develop WHIP as a resiliency strength. Begin by (1) recognizing that humor is not puerile levity but a vital life-force that recharges the brain, provides respite from hardship, unites strangers, and delights the mind. (2) Enjoy the wit and humor of others as a celebration of life. (3) Appreciate humor and playfulness as acts of resistance against the sorrows and suffering in the world. If you do all that, then WHIP will eventually find you and make you a more resilient person, as it did for one of my anxiety disorder patients. Ms. A worried herself over anything and everything. She couldn’t stay away from horrific breaking news about crashes, fires, or muggings. She struggled with panic attacks and anticipatory anxiety. It was humor that helped her fight back against agoraphobia: when she was starting to get too fearful to walk to the grocery store, WHIP visited her unexpectedly and derailed the freight train full of fearful thoughts in her mind. As she told me, “I read in the news about all these women jogging who get snatched off the trail. But then I heard, fat people are harder to kidnap. I looked in the mirror and I felt reassured and laughed at the thought of someone trying to drag me away! So I still walk to the grocery store and back!”
- Laurence Gonzalez, Deep Survival: who lives, who dies, and why: true stories of miraculous survival and sudden death. W.W. Norton & Co., 2003, p. 41.
- John Leach, Survival Psychology. New York University Press, 1994, as quoted in Gonzalez (Deep Survival, op. cit.), p. 197.
- Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival. Resilience, and Redemption. Random House 2010, p. 204. Chapter titled “Farting for Hirohito”.
- Sam Watkins, Company Aytch. or a Side Show of the Big Show: a Memoir of the Civil War. 2nd Ed., 2011.
- Dan Buettner, Thrive: finding happiness the Blue Zones way (secrets from the world’s happiest people), p. 138, National Geographic Society, 2011.
Copyright © 2020 Larry H. Pastor, M.D.