Q: Nan, what is your book Breakaway Laughter all about?
A: Breakaway Laughter is about finding humor, the absurd, the ridiculous in life’s challenges. The way we react to difficult life events and circumstances can set us up for happiness or misery. Everyone has challenges. The key to our success lies in how we react to those challenges.
Q: So you’re saying we have a lot of choice in the matter.
A: Absolutely. We cannot always control the events in our lives. We can always control our assessment of and our reaction to those events.
Q: What’s an example of one way we can control an event’s assessment? I’m thinking, for example, of the 55-year-old executive who gets laid off from his job. Say he isn’t ready to retire. How can he assess that in a positive way?
A: Actually, I met an executive with that very problem. He was convinced potential employers would discriminate against him due to his age. Of course someone in this position will assess the layoff as a major and negative life event. Such assessments lead to a lot of stress. He could also, however, view his age as an asset, rather than a liability. He has experience younger job applicants don’t have. An executive with this view is more likely to look for work sooner, and he is more likely to confidently sell himself to potential employers. So the assessment makes a difference in the outcome.
Q: How does humor help when we’re assessing life’s challenges?
A: Events we perceive as negative create more stress for us if we also perceive them as major in scope. Humor tends to minimize problems in our minds. A relative of mine has some pretty severe leg wounds. He has to go to the hospital every day for whirlpool soakings. The last time he went, someone put the wrong ingredient in the water, and foam started bubbling up and over the sides of the whirlpool. It was as if Mount St. Helens had erupted in that treatment room. The nurses were scrambling. People were sliding around. He laughed, which gave him some relief from the pain and the magnitude of the problem with his legs.
Q: But a good belly laugh is just temporary.
A: Laughter’s effects actually last longer than you might think. For one thing, laughter enhances the immune system. A strengthened immune system helps us ward off illnesses like colds and the flu.
Q: You work with employers to encourage laughter in the workplace. Is this really important? Doesn’t it just take people away from the task at hand?
A: People who laugh have greater job satisfaction, which in turn makes them more productive. They’re nicer to customers. They do better work. Laughter also enhances creativity and teamwork. Think about it. If you’re sitting with others around a table solving a problem, your task is infinitely easier if team members trust and like each other. When we laugh together, we build relationships.
Q: You also address some serious issues in Breakaway Laughter. For example, you have a chapter that talks about your divorce. Where’s the humor in divorce?
A: It’s true some events carry tremendous pain. Divorce is one of them. Within that broad picture, however, you can find nuggets to mine. A few months after my ex-husband and I split up, my 8-year-old son offered up his brand of solution. He said, “You know, Mom, how the divorce has been hard on us and all? Well, I was thinking that maybe $5 would help.” You better believe I whipped a $5 bill out of my pocket!
Q: You talked at one point in the book about having to stop drinking. Just about everyone seems to be touched in some way by a substance abuser. Why did you stop?
A: Like many others, I used alcohol for pain control. It numbed the problems, at least temporarily. But it’s insane, when you think about it. It’s kind of like saying, “Oh look, that house is on fire. I think I’ll put it out by squirting some lighter fluid on it.” Alcohol only exacerbates our problems. It also disrupts sleep, which just adds more fuel to that raging fire.
Q: Do you see yourself more as a humorist or a stress management expert?
A: I don’t see much difference. If one of my stories has people rolling on the floor, I’m definitely helping them reduce stress levels. They go hand-in-hand.
Q: What advice would you give to others who want to write humor?
A: Pay attention. You can find good material everywhere you look. I’m especially taken with conversational humor. A couple of weeks ago my young son and his friend were in the car. Gabe turned to Wes and said, “Hey Wes, how come you have two dents in your forehead?” Wes replied, “What dents?” Gabe said, “Hmmm . . . maybe you fell on a Lego when you were a kid,” to which Wes replied, “I like playing with Legos.” Gabe ended the conversation with, “Yeah, me, too.” The humor is there. We just have to keep our eyes and ears open for it.