A Little Happier: One Strategy to Take the Sting Out of Painful Words

I often try to think of the right thing to say, and I look for the phrases and attitudes that can help.

In my study of happiness, I’ve learned many truths that are difficult to put into practice. One truth? We can often take the sting out of a painful conversation or difficult situation by seeing the funny side, and laughing about it. (Though this can be easier said than done.)

Sometimes, it’s wonderful to have someone give commiseration and comfort. But sometimes, it’s wonderful when someone helps you laugh at a situation. Obviously, this strategy only works in certain contexts, and has to be used carefully–but in the right circumstances, it can be powerful.

Here are some examples of when I successfully turned to humor.

My daughter Eleanor was getting dressed for a party, and she came to show me her outfit. I could tell that she was feeling anxious about her appearance.

I told her she looked great, but she was dissatisfied, and kept asking me. “Do you think it makes me look stubby?” she said. “Or dumpy?”

I decided to turn to humor. I chanted “Stubby, dumpy, and frumpy!” a few times, then we started laughing and couldn’t stop. It lightened the mood.

Another time, I used this on myself. I’m working on my new book, about the five senses, and I gave a draft to my mother to read. (She’s a very good editor.)

She suggested that a particular paragraph be cut from the draft. I was telling her why I’d put it in, and why I thought it should stay, and she said doubtfully, “Well, okay, but I found it confusing.” Then she added, almost as an after-thought, “And boring.”

For a moment I felt defensive about my paragraph, and I could tell she felt bad about offering criticism, then I said, “Confusing and boring! One of the worst combos in writing!” We started laughing. She felt better about giving me her edit, I was able to take in her point, and now I think of that phrase all the time when I’m editing.

Poking fun at myself, and making the comment into a little inside joke, makes it easier to hear criticism.

And the great thing about using humor is that we don’t actually have to be funny! It’s more a state of mind than an exercise in true wit.

Sometimes, warm, gentle laughter works even better than sympathy for defusing a difficult situation.




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