Don’t Take Life So Seriously!

Why It’s Incredibly Important To Learn To Laugh At Yourself?

“Problem-free philosophy: No worries for the rest of your days!” These are the lyrics from “hakuna matata,”a song in the Disney’s animation The Lion King (1994).

“Hakuna matata” means “no worries” in Swahili.

The song was sung by a meerkat (Timon) and a warthog (Pumbaa) who were teaching the main character (a lion cub, Simba) not to take life so seriously. Simba had indirectly caused the death of his father, and was laden with guilt and remorse. Timon and Pumbaa were persuading Simba not to despair, to live in the present and just enjoy life! I secretly envy personalities like Timon and Pumbaa.

Most of the time, I take life too seriously.

I set goals, make plans, and work really hard to accomplish what I’ve set out to do. Once achieving a goal, I’m looking for another one to conquer.

This approach is common among “go-getters” but there are limitations.

Being too focused sometimes lead to myopia. The world is a much larger place. There is a greater purpose than conquering challenges and reaching goals. Making a real impact may often requires taking a step back to maintain perspectives and to be grounded.

When you are rushing to places (sometimes literally), you miss opportunities to touch others and even meet obvious needs.

An example is the famous “Good Samaritan” study among seminary students. Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) to illustrate what it means to love your neighbor and specifically, who’s your neighbor. In the parable, a man was traveling to Jericho (from Jerusalem) but unfortunately was robbed and was abandoned to the roadside to die. Two people (a priest and a Levite) saw the man and passed by him on the other side of the road. The third person, a Samaritan, saw the man. The Samaritan not only put badges on the man but also took him to an inn, paying an innkeeper to look after him.

The study tested the characteristics and attributes of those who offered assistance to the “victim”. The study was conducted with seminary students who were given a task: either to give a talk about seminary jobs or to give a talk on Good Samaritan. The “victim” was an actor who lay on the ground and slumped against the wall, purposely placed in the path of study participants heading to perform their assigned tasks. Ironically, the study found that study participants who were in a hurry was less likely to help the “victim” and may even walk over the “victim”, even if they were to speak on the Good Samaritan!

Hence, despite good intentions, we may need to literally stop, re-assess, and open our eyes for those around us.

Furthermore, there are many unpredicted circumstances that may block our paths. Cancer, stroke, heart attack, car accidents, robbery, natural disasters, … the list could go on. If you are too focused on the goal, it’s difficult to maintain balance and find healthy perspectives in the face of these challenges.

“A good laugh heals a lot of hurts.” — Madeleine L’Engle

There was a very poignant and disturbing scene in the movie Whiplash (2014), whereby the main character, Andrew (a first-year jazz student at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York) was involved in a car accident. While on his way to a jazz competition, his rental car was hit by a truck. He crawled out from the wreckage, ran/walked the rest of his way to the venue, and went on stage severely injured to perform. The movie was under a lot of criticism for the way it portrayed how Andrew as an ambitious young drummer. He was driven to the edge of insanity by the manipulation and harsh techniques of the jazz ensemble leader/teacher Terence Fletcher. Nevertheless, it was a caricature of the high costs that the ambitious young drummer was willing to sacrifice to achieve his dream. While extreme, there are high (and sometimes hidden) costs of pursuing any dream. But it doesn’t seem to be worth it if we begin to lose sight of life priorities, our values, and identity in the process.

“The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” — John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir

In addition, if we are so focused on rushing to places, we forget to appreciate the simple joys and beauty of life. Where’s the time to smell the roses and admire nature?

“To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment.” — Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

When we begin to take ourselves (and life) less seriously, we have a greater ability to:

  • See the humor in situations
  • Find the silver lining in things when they don’t go the way we want them to
  • Navigate through life a bit easier.
“Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive.” — Bill Cosby

I had this epiphany when I came across the heart-wrenching but courageous story of Xiang Yao (项瑶). She was a popular mainland Chinese manga artist/cartoonist with the pen name Xiong Dun (熊顿). She passed away in 2012 at the age of 30 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (cancer that originates in the lymphatic system, part of the body’s immune system). Her resilience, optimism and sense of humor were captured in her manga. Her battle and struggle with cancer were moving and depicted humorously in her illustrated book, “Go Away Mr. Tumor.” At its peak, 3,000 copies of the book were sold daily. She had 3 million followers on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) before passing away. Since then, the book has been made into a movie.

Photo credit: Xiang Yao’s blog and Weibo

In the opening of her book, she wrote, “I became ill in the early morning of August 21, 2011. I woke up and walked to my bedroom door. There, I collapsed unconscious, with foam in my mouth and seizures in my limbs…and completely naked.

Photo credit: Xiang Yao’s blog and Weibo

Hence it was with this playful and self-depreciating humor that Xiong Dun shared her journey with the world. She would recount her encounter with the handsome haematologist, Dr. Liang, and how she would insist upon looking the best in front of him. Even when she was in pain and began to suffer from edema, she would try to exercise and lose weight.

Photo credit: Xiang Yao’s blog and Weibo

Though she accepted balding, she wore a wig and engaged in self-care so that she won’t look shabby. She also shared her gratitude and appreciation for the large and small triumphs in life, as well as her many dreams, including dancing like Michael Jackson. She believed that she would get well enough to see each of her dreams come to fruition. Her Weibo and book were filled with good humour, self-mockery, and jokes even though the setting was in the hospital ward. In many interviews, it’s easy to forget that she’s a terminally ill patient due to her positivity, infectious joy, and passion for life. Despite her illness, she has inspired, motivated, and brought hope to many people both during and after her lifetime.

“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.” — Robert Fulghum
“The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter…Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” — Mark Twain

As Mayo Clinic also pointed out, there are both short-term and long-term benefits from laughter, including stimulations to heart and lung functioning, muscle relaxation, improvement to immune system, and pain relief.

A few selected studies that show the role of humor in healing and combating emotional and physical stress:

  • Doctors at the Moriguchi-Keijinkai Hospital in Japan found that laughter of mothers may be helpful in treating infants with eczema
  • One in five National Cancer Institute treatment centers offer some form of humor therapy (e.g., watching movies, listening to music, reading books or attending humor workshops) to improve quality of life and reduce stress for cancer patients
  • Researchers at Japan’s Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine found that watching a 75-minute comedy may increase the natural killer cells activity in blood
  • A study at Birmingham University found a link between higher marital satisfaction and higher antibody response to a flu vaccine
  • A study from the Foundation for Advancement of International Science in Japan showed that laughter seems to lower levels of a protein involved in the progression of diabetic nephropathy (a kidney disease that occurs as a result of diabetes)
How do you find laughter and humor in everyday life?
“From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.” — Dr. Seuss
  • Take yourself less seriously: laugh light-heartedly at your own foibles
  • Don’t be so hard on others: a smile and a chuckle goes a lot further
  • Find the irony of difficult situations and let go of things that you can’t control
  • Put items/reminders of humor near you: Remember the jokes your friend told you, keep crafts/drawings from your kids, keep funny photos of your pets, keep comic strips that make you chuckle, keep funny movies handy, go to a comedy club
  • Enjoy the simplicity of life: practice being present, notice the beauty of your surroundings, and enjoy time with loved ones
  • Develop a habit of writing down things that you appreciate or are grateful for

Use judgment to discern a good vs. bad joke: Finally, I want to add a note to distinguish “good” versus “bad” humor. We can laugh with others and at ourselves. But laughing at others (at the expense of others’ misfortunes) makes others a target and is often hurtful and cruel. Calling out this distinction to kids and teenagers will be important as making fun of others maliciously has become a form of bullying in school (and even online). Being laughed at by others can be a miserable experience. This type of mistreatment can cause anxiety and pain.