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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

In The Midst Of A Pandemic, Humor Researcher Says Make Laughter Infectious

Jackie Hai
Memes and jokes about the coronavirus have exploded across the internet as the pandemic spreads worldwide.

During this unprecedented time, finding coping mechanisms for anxiety, stress and isolation will be critical. You can go for a run, write in a journal — or enjoy some good-natured humor.

That last one can be tough in the midst of a global pandemic, but critical, said Peter McGraw, director of the University of Colorado Boulder's Humor Research Lab, or HuRL.

"Huddling around the radio, so to speak, and listening to the news reports just tends to amplify the scariness of what's going on," said McGraw, who is also a professor of marketing and psychology. "And a bit of comedy — whether it be through your Instagram feed, through a Netflix comedy special, or calling up your friend who's pretty good at making jokes in the face of tragedy — is not only a good way to distract yourself from what's going on, but it's also a good way to delight yourself."

Credit University of Colorado Boulder
University of Colorado Boulder
Peter McGraw is director of the University of Colorado Boulder's Humor Research Lab.

And that's good for your health.

Studies link laughter with a release of endorphins, which boosts your mood, along with alleviating stress and increasing immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies to improve your resistance to disease.

Humor will also be an important tool in dealing with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, McGraw said.

"What I think the average person is dealing with at the moment is the threat and uncertainty of this," he said. "And one of the challenges that people are having is that the government is asking them to 'socially distance' themselves and that can make life a little bit difficult, because one of the great ways to cope with fear and uncertainty is to lean on people that you care about and to communicate with others and to have a strong social support network."

Comedy often works best in a shared experience — a comedy club or a movie theater. But unfortunately right now laughter isn't the only thing that's contagious. As people are isolated at home, they're looking to social media for connection, which isn't always best for the emotional state, McGraw said.

"And the reason is that your social media feed is a mess," he said. "There's comedy there, there's people complaining, there (is) speculation, there's news reports. It's a little bit of everything and so if you're looking for a little bit of distraction and a little bit of levity then just go and find it with the professionals."

McGraw recommended leaving comedy to the professionals, whether that's checking out a comedy special or a favorite funny movie or some light reading, to help ease tension and anxiety.

"I would say turn your phone off, tune in and take a little bit of a break," he said. "You certainly deserve it."

Making others laugh can also be a great stress reliever but McGraw recommended treading lightly here.

"Even the most well intentioned joke can not 'land,'" said McGraw, whose upcoming book, "Schtick to Business," is about navigating the do's and don'ts of making jokes at work.

Being really clear about who the target or punchline is, is important, he said, adding that "punching up" should be your goal. Self-deprecation is also a great option.

Focusing on a shared experience or frustration also works — like the toilet paper shortage due to some people hoarding it. Using the recent glut of toilet paper shortage jokes and memes as a "case study," McGraw noted there are two perspectives.

One is that comedy is a thermometer, taking the temperature of the room, suggesting how bad or good something is.

"And so when people are making jokes about toilet paper, particularly about hoarding toilet paper, what they're saying to the world is, "I'm not a fan of people hoarding toilet paper; it's not the right thing to do,'" McGraw said.

The second is that comedy is also a thermostat, expressing not only opinions about a situation but the belief on how people should act.

"It can say to the world, 'you should not be behaving that way. You're a bad person and I'm making jokes about you to set a boundary about how you should be behaving,'" he said.

When dealing with a pretty weighty topic like a pandemic, making light of something like not having enough toilet paper is actually a pretty solid and safe premise, he said.

"It's not the most important thing that's going on with regards to this crisis, and it's trying to — in a well-intentioned way — set a boundary, which is you have two choices in this matter: you can choose to be just focused on yourself, or you can choose to be focused on the community and hoarding is not good for the community even if it's good for yourself."

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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