In a world of tit for tat and brickbats, there is a free and simple way to stay sane.
I was one of them. I was one of those people who often had a dark cloud over my head. I was living alone and was lonely. I didn’t know how to do relationships. I envied many people for their appearances, their possessions, and their apparent happiness. I spent much of my time trying to figure out what I was doing wrong that made me so miserable.
But I was employed and I was saving some money. I was not earning my worth because I didn’t know what I was worth. And even though I was not entirely happy, I noticed something in the way that I acted at work. I found a reason to be happy.
I noticed that if I smiled and said “good morning” people would reciprocate. I noticed that if I smiled going the other way in the hallway, I often got a smile back. I learned at one point that a smile, out of all of the expressions we can make with our faces, takes fewer muscles than any other expression. I learned that smiles are free.
When I was at work, I was around people who inspired me to be funny. There was a woman at the front desk named Laura. She had a great sense of humor and she inspired me to be funny. I found that even on my darkest days, she’d set herself up for a great zinger and I’d have her laughing hysterically for a few minutes. I discovered that even when I wasn’t happy, I could not resist saying something just to make someone laugh. I found that those moments gave me relief from my own discomfort.
I think that a sense of humor has carried me through many years of my life. At the time that I was working with Laura, I was working at a retirement home. The average age of the residents at the retirement home was 82 years. While working there, I learned that there were 3 stages of living. There was independent living, assisted living, and 24/7 care, the last stage being essentially hospice care.
That last stage was the slippery slope to what they called, “expiration”. I used to get broadcast voicemails that would go something like this, “At 3:32 AM today, so-and-so expired today.” That was part of my life working in a retirement home.
I noticed that the people who were still living independently were walking every day. They made jokes every time I talked with them. They had a sense of humor. What I learned from them is that when you’re 82, you need a sense of humor while your body disintegrates very slowly.
While working at the retirement home, I often walked the grounds and made rounds to the people I was serving. I was the local IT guy and it was my job to solve computer problems for the people working there, so I’d talk to everyone to see how they were doing with their computers. I’d ask if there were any problems they needed me to assist them with, and I’d help them.
I noticed that I always felt better after helping someone with their computer problems. I’d see someone working around a problem and ask them why they were doing that, when the problem started and why they didn’t ask me for help. “You always look so busy, Scott” was the common reply. But I let them know that it was not an inconvenience for me to help them. That was my job. My job was to make their job easier.
But it wasn’t just a job to me. Even today, I still get that hit of something when I help someone with a problem. I’m pretty sure that’s dopamine at work. I also get that same hit while I’m talking casually with someone at work and I say something funny. I know that if I say something funny, we both enjoy a laugh, and for a brief moment, we forget about our problems.
For a time, I was doing stand-up comedy for a hobby. I enjoyed the rush of being in front of an audience. I enjoyed trying out, refining and working my set. I really enjoyed watching the same people laugh at the same punch lines every time I performed. Here, watch this grainy old video of my stand-up comedy act. The camera shakes every time my wife laughs because she’s holding the camera. This is just one of the things I really enjoy doing.
When I was performing stand-up comedy, I believed that I was doing something special. While my audience enjoyed themselves with me on stage, they were not thinking of their problems, they were at peace, and they were having a good time. I learned that I brought peace to the people in my life with humor. And I still do that.
I was talking to someone at work yesterday and during that time, I gave that person a reason to laugh. I don’t always plan to do that, but some people just inspire me to be funny. Like Laura. Like my wife. Like my kids. Even my dad. And my mom. They get my jokes. All of my humor is free.
I have a few simple rules about the people in my life. If you laugh at my jokes you get to stay in my life. If you make me laugh, I will find every reasonable means to keep you in my life. This is very important to me because I’m hard of hearing. I tend to anticipate what people are going to say, just in case they say something funny. When I see someone leading up to a punchline, I’m already there most of the time because I can predict what they’re going to say. Most times, when someone makes me laugh, it’s because they’ve caught me completely by surprise. They’re the gems in my life.
The third rule is that if you don’t laugh at my jokes, or can’t make me laugh, then there isn’t much I can do to help you. I know this may seem a bit cynical, but there is only so much I can do for someone. If someone wants help from me, they must cooperate to receive that help. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Humor and helping hands are like that.
The greatest thing about humor is that it’s free. I love a good pun, even if my dad says that puns are the lowest form of humor. So what? That just makes puns more accessible. I love it when people change the frame of reference for humor. I love obscure humor — most of my humor is obscure and indirect. I love dry humor, like Steve Martin and Bob Newhart. The people in my life who make me laugh the most deploy dry humor to do it.
I avoid deprecating humor, especially self-deprecating humor. I avoid insults, personal or otherwise. I don’t make my humor personal. I make it irreverent, keep it light and innocent, and keep it fun. My humor can be so dry, that people will furrow their brows and ask, “Did you just say something funny? It's hard to tell…”
Smiles are what I use to be happy. Humor is what I use to stay sane. I know that they work because I’ve seen super seniors do it. The longest living seniors have a great sense of humor. Just ask George Burns, he lived quite happy to be 100.