I recently ran across an essay by the legendary motivator Earl Nightingale on the importance of having a sense of humor about life. After running across it, I decided to read it.
"The one serious conviction a man should have is that nothing be taken too seriously" was Nightingale's philosophy in a nutshell. Nightingale borrowed the notion from English writer Samuel Butler, who got it from William Shakespeare, who cribbed it from Plato and Homer, who stole it from a cosmic cheat sheet kept in Zeus' back pocket. I hasten to add that women, teen-agers and two-year-olds can benefit immensely from this advice as well.
Seriously, have more fun
As we end this calamitous year and head into the next, it's worth remembering that a lively sense of humor is an important key to keeping one's mental health intact. Lose your sense of humor and you can end up losing much more than that: You can lose perspective, confidence, motivation, compassion, friends, your job and, in the most extreme cases, your life. To be sure, people who can laugh at themselves and see the absurdity in everyday existence do not commit suicide — it tends to ruin the joke.
If you don't believe me, Nightingale, Butler, Shakespeare Plato or Homer, take it from Nick Mezacapa. Mezacapa is a priest at the Calvary Episcopal Church in Rochester, Minn., home of the Mayo Clinic. As it happens, Mezacapa's church is located across the street from the Mayo, and Mezacapa spends a fair amount of his time giving people in the hospital their last rites. Often, he is the one who hears their last words before they die.
What do people say about this life at the moment they are about to pass into the next one?
"They don't say that they should have invested earlier in Microsoft or worked 80 hours a week instead of 70," says Mezacapa, who also speaks professionally on the subject of human values in business. "Most of the time, the thing they regret is not enjoying themselves more in life," he says. "They say they should have had more fun."
Laughter is the by-product of fun, the antidote to cynicism and despair, the mechanism by which human beings maintain their moral and psychological balance. When laughter stops, the door opens a crack for the hobgoblins of fear and righteousness to sneak in, and once inside, those little monsters can do a great deal of damage.
Nightingale's advice on such matters is remarkably straightforward. "I have found it a good rule of thumb to be slightly suspicious of anyone who takes himself too seriously," he writes. "Dictators are famous for their lack of humor," he notes, adding, "The mark of a cruel person is that he doesn't seem to be able to see anything funny in the world. … To my mind, when a person lacks a sense of humor, there's something pretty seriously wrong with him."
Who is making you laugh?
This isn't to suggest that one should approach every aspect of life with an attitude of recklessness and frivolity (though it helps sometimes) — just that the wise person, if the wisest people in history are to be believed, recognizes something is amiss when one loses the ability to laugh at life. Likewise, when one encounters people who are humor-impaired — people who take themselves far too seriously and think of humor as a waste of time and energy — skepticism of such people and their motives is more than justified, it's required.
As we eat our way through the holiday season and mull over resolutions for the coming year, I encourage you to look around to see who is making you laugh and who isn't. Invariably, I think you'll find that the people who aren't making you laugh are the ones who are propping open the door to anxiety, misery, despair and hopelessness. Whenever possible, I recommend going through the other door, the one held open by those who aren't afraid to laugh when the going gets tough and the serious get going. As Earl Nightingale said, "When we've lost our sense of humor, there isn't very much left. We become ridiculous."
If it's good enough for Earl, it's good enough for me. Laughter is the best medicine, it is said, so at the very least I recommend doubling your daily dosage in 2006. If 2005 is any indication, you're going to need all the help you can get.
Tad Simons is editor-in-chief of Presentations magazine.
Send comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tad Simons, Editor-in-chief
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