The Importance of Humor in the Bipolar Life

I always tried to apply humor to my teaching. Laughter is so important, as far as  I’m concerned, in both teaching and confronting mental illness. I’d been  known to devote disproportionate amounts of class time to shaggy dog jokes and just plain silliness. Shaggy dog jokes are those that are long with pointless or disappointing punchlines.  The kids seemed tortured yet often loved these jokes at the same time.

Aristotle was contemplating the platypus when he said, “The gods too are fond of a joke.”  But I think it really means that no matter how busy or important you think you are, you can use a little humor in your life.  

Winston Churchill once said, “A joke is a very serious thing.”  Humor activates the brain’s dopamine system, which stimulates motivation and long term memory.  It relieves stress, tension, and anxiety.   Cortisol, the stress hormone, so to speak, is reduced.   And finally, humor creates class cohesiveness and a bond between educator and students.  I probably overdid it.

Laughter is also vital to mental health.  There is much truth behind the old adage that “laughter is the best medicine.”  Research overwhelmingly confirms it.  Its benefits are some of the same as in exercise: reducing stress, relieving anxiety, releasing endorphins.  It also increases energy and lifts one’s overall mood.  The real life “Patch Adams,” Doctor Hunter Campbell, opened an institute to train doctors to use humor. 

Jokes for me were also a suit of armor, a barrier that I’d put up.  Having a mental illness made me feel particularly vulnerable.  Or it could have been a way of self medicating.  The “sad clown” phenomenon is well known and was much discussed after the suicide of Robin Williams.  It’s perhaps the reason why the Laugh Factory in Hollywood has its own in-house psychologist.

A well traveled joke is told that a man goes to visit a doctor who is widely known for his ability to treat depression.  “I feel like a lead weight is around me.  I do nothing but sleep,” says the man. “I feel sad all the time.  Please help me, doctor.”

“There is no better medicine than laughter, my good man,” says the doctor. “Go to the theatre and see the Great Grimaldi.  His performance will have you howling in fits of laughter.  You won’t need any pills from me.”

The man looks at the doctor and says, “That won’t work.”

“And why not?”

“I am Grimaldi.”

Or as a stand up comedian might say: “So I went to my shrink.  Three sessions on his couch.  Now I can’t get an appointment.  He’s doing my routine twice a night in the Catskills.”

There really was a Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837).  He was an English actor/comedian and pantomimist/clown. Charles Dickens edited his posthumously published autobiography.

A couple of mental well-being jokes: 

Santa Claus goes into a psychiatrist’s office. The psychiatrist says, “What seems to be the problem, Santa?”

The big fella says, “Oh doc, I just don’t believe in myself anymore!”

A moth goes into a podiatrist’s office.

The podiatrist says, “What seems to be the problem?”

The moth says, “Well, doc, I’ve lost my job, my wife is leaving me, and my kids hate me.”

The podiatrist says, “You need a psychiatrist, not a foot doctor. Why did you come in here?”

The moth says, “Cuz I saw a light on!”