In our trying times, we need the healing power of humor more than ever | Lloyd E. Sheaffer

Life’s road is a bumpy one. Humor and laughter can help smooth out the ride

February 28, 2023 6:30 am
Group of friends having fun

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Having just recently passed the three quarters-of-a-century mark, I suppose my age qualifies me to be an official grumpy old man. Beyond the changes wrought by time, though,

I felt even grumpier after reading this headline: “States love jokes on road safety signs. The feds aren’t laughing.It seems federal bureaucrats have lost their sense of humor according to a recent article in The Washington Post

Ian Duncan reports the bureaucrats in the Federal Highway Administration got their knickers in knots when New Jersey’s Department of Transportation posted humorous signs such as “Slow down, this ain’t Thunder Road” to encourage drivers to lighten up on the accelerator.

Officials in the FHA say such jocular signs are not consistent with the standards set forth in its 864-page Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. No joke, 864 pages! That is a serious instructional handbook.

So listen up everyone: Soften your hardnesses; erase your resentments; eradicate your irritations. Laugh often, especially at yourself.

New Jersey, as well as other states such as Tennessee “Ain’t nobody got time for a wreck. Slow it down;” Pennsylvania “Only Rudolph should drive lit. Plan a sober drive,” and Virginia’s “Don’t be a crash-test dummy, drive sober,” are not the firstto use witticisms to encourage safe driving.

A century ago the Burma-Shave company began using punny signs to promote its shaving cream; for instance, one set proclaimed “Said Juliet to Romeo: If you don’t shave, go homeo.” However, as travel by automobiles became more widespread in the 1930s, the socially responsive company used its signs to promote prudent driving.

One safety message promulgated “Violets are blue, roses are pink on [the] graves of those who drive and drink.” Another announced “He tried to cross as a fast train neared. Death didn’t draft him — he volunteered.”

n these times of division, social challenges, political paralysis, and a time when the Doomsday Clock is set at 90 seconds to midnight, we need more humor, not less. While a sizable number of our current politicians are laughable, they and their civil service minions are not providing the kind of salubrious effects that humor can bring and which we need now in our tumultuous world.

Although they can both elicit laughter, comedy and sense of humor are not the same. Nowadays, comedy, too often, comprises insensitive, profanity-laced, slash and burn tirades. A sense of humor uplifts, not destroys.

As such, a bit of levity in road signs—perhaps “Visiting the in-laws? Slow down. Get there late” or “OMG, are you texting? I can’t even,” might have  more positive results than such sterile, humorless messages as “Slower Traffic Keep Right,” or “Do Not Stop On Tracks.”

An authentic sense of humor can be healing on several levels. In a summary report Lawrence Robinson, Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. review research findings of the benefits of the laughter evoked by a sense of humor. These psychologists note these boons:

  • Boosts immunity
  • Lowers stress hormones
  • Decreases pain
  • Relaxes your muscles
  • Prevents heart disease
  • Adds joy and zest to life
  • Eases anxiety and tension
  • Relieves stress
  • Improves mood
  • Strengthens resilience

In addition to the noted personal benefits, approaching life with a genuine sense of humor has social benefits. The authors suggest these advantages:

  • Strengthens relationships
  • Attracts others to us
  • Enhances teamwork
  • Helps defuse conflict
  • Promotes group bonding

In the New York Times article “When Everything Is Heavy, a Touch of Humor Can Help,” health journalist Carolyn Todd reports that  “… a chorus of experts say cultivating levity [a sense of humor] is essential to well-being.

Trying to lighten up might seem challenging given the state of the world; a more somber practice — like mindfulness, which certainly comes with perks — can feel more appropriate for “these unprecedented times.”

But taking things less seriously allows us to “travel more lightly,” said Willibald Ruch, a professor and positive psychology researcher at the University of Zurich, and “saves the organism and the soul from too much of a bumpy road.’”

A prescription of humor mixed with laughter taken as needed—i.e. often—sounds like a good one to address the fractured communities in which we exist now.

When one of our national elected representatives from Georgia says that if she had organized the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol “we would have won” and “it would’ve been armed;” when another member of the U.S. House from Texas claims there are “‘very high’ odds of war with China” by 2025; and when there have been 96 mass shootings and 6,028 gun violence deaths in our country in the first seven weeks of 2023, we need some healing humor wherever and whenever we can experience it, even if it is along our roads and highways.

Mark Twain, who knew more than most about humor, once said that “humor is the great thing, the saving thing after all. The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations, and resentments flit away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

Note again what Twain declares about humor: “hardnesses yield,” “irritations and resentments flit away,” a sunny spirit takes their place.”

So listen up everyone: Soften your hardnesses; erase your resentments; eradicate your irritations. Laugh often, especially at yourself.

Life’s road is a bumpy one. Humor and laughter can help smooth out the ride.

Even for a grumpy old man who has been on the highway for 75 years.

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Lloyd E. Sheaffer
Lloyd E. Sheaffer

Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer, a retired English and Humanities teacher, writes from North Middleton Township, Pa. His work appears monthly on the Pennsylvania Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected].