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Weapons of Mass Distraction

Take my stress.  Please.

Those aficionados of Readers Digest know that a venerable feature of the periodical is a collection of funny anecdotes entitled “Laughter, The Best Medicine.” But did you know that there is a growing body of scientific and historical evidence that humor, or the ability to even temporarily change your emotional landscape, does indeed have dramatic medicinal benefits?

It is a known fact that humor has been identified as an essential cornerstone to society by anthropologists across almost every culture, country, religion or ethnic group – even in Washington D.C., sometimes intentionally.  Think of the myriad of references to the benefits of humor in literature, music and the arts:

  • “Always laugh when you can.  It is cheap medicine.” – Lord Byron
  • “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” – Ancient Irish Proverb
  • “A clown is like an aspirin – only he works twice as fast.” – Groucho Marx
  • “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.” – Billy Joel
  • “I’ve always been crazy – but it’s kept me from going insane.” – Waylon Jennings
  • “Sometimes laughter is a matter of life and death.” – From the film “Fried Green Tomatoes”
  • A merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” – Old Testament, Proverbs 17:22


Indeed, let us go back to the ancient Greeks and to the very origin of the very word “humor.”  The Greeks conceived of four basic fluids that were contained in the human body, which they christened The Four Humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood).  It was their view that if any of these were somehow out of balance to the others, the entire equilibrium and health of the body was thereby affected.

The Greeks were not that far off.  Scientifically, doctors at the University of Maryland School of Medicine conducted a study on the process of vasodilation, e.g., the ability of your blood vessels to expand.  The wider the vessel, the greater the blood flow to the brain.  The greater the blood flow, the more positive and constructive the subject’s outlook.  They chose a control group of some forty local college students, separating them into screening rooms of twenty apiece.  One room was shown the opening minutes of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” – the beach landing sequence on D-Day, in all its goriness, stress and chaos.  The other room was shown an identically long segment from one of comedian Bill Murray’s cinematic triumphs, “Kingpin”, chock full of one liners, pratfalls and just plain silliness.  Then each group’s blood vessels were scientifically measured.  Amazingly, fourteen of the twenty in the “Private Ryan” group displayed constriction, or narrowing, of their vessels, with an average of thirty-five percent less blood flow to the brain.  In contrast, fully nineteen of the twenty “Kingpin” watchers displayed dilated vessels, with an average of twenty-two percent increase in blood flow.

A similar college study involved exposing a class full of serious-minded business students to a comedy video before a tough negotiation exercise.  The result was a palpable increase in working together to reach a consensus. 

Anecdotally, Norman Cousin, longtime beloved editor of “Saturday Review”, wrote about his being diagnosed with a debilitating, crippling case of arthritis in the 1960’s.  He tried all that medical science had to offer with little or no relief.  In desperation, he went home and fed himself a steady diet of Marx Brothers movies, and soon his recovery was palpable.  His detailed account, “Anatomy of an Illness,” became a best seller in 1979. 

Hormonally, long-distance runners have long ago sworn by the “runner’s high”, a pleasure-producing, almost addictive feeling, relating to the release of endorphins into the blood stream.  It is this chemical that helps reduce anxiety-producing hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, unleashed by our bodies as it literally primes for a fight.  Comic relief apparently performs the same function as running a 10 kilometer race.

And more and more institutions are making this important connection.  A children’s hospital in Chicago for the last decade has staffed a “humor cart” laden with gag toys and jokey doodads, with a trained attendant who makes rounds with one single goal – to elicit a small giggle from an infirm child.  The indirect goal is to decrease the child’s anxiety, making his body less likely to resist treatment.  One attendant described it as “the element of forgetting where we are.” 

So how do all of these comedic building blocks apply to a structured, concentrated negotiation such as your typical mediation?  You begin with the premise that many participants in this process (especially plaintiffs in personal injury cases, many of whom are “rookies” in the process) are either very angry and/or fearful as they enter the negotiation.  For them, it is anything but “another day at the office.”  Any mediator worth his salt knows that unless you  can peel away the armor of resentment and fear in your participants, you are doomed to failure.  In essence, humor helps to cut through the emotional roadblocks to a rational and productive collaboration, so essential to reaching a consensus.

As a mediator, I have often resorted by trial and error to more than my share of what I call “S & M”.  No, my techniques rarely involve whips, chains, or handcuffs, though the occasional medieval weapon might occasionally be in order.  No, my “S & M” stands for Sarcasm and Mockery, and it can take many and varied forms, depending upon a myriad of personalities and circumstances. Any one mediation is subject to a thousand crossroads, subjecting any use of humor to intuitive timing directed at creating a reconnection with the party or a changing of the climate in the negotiation.  Techniques may vary from using cartoons with self-styled captions that assist in reality checks to not-so-subtle anecdotes or parables that utilize gallows humor to send the message that in the end, we are all together in the same lifeboat in a very big ocean.  Sometimes humor is used a-la Rodney Dangerfield’s “no respect” routine, a self-effacing tool that helps to feel the participant’s pain and fosters the essential ingredients of trust and rapport.  But alas, timing is everything, and humor used at the wrong time in a negotiation can literally add fuel to the flames.  The effective mediator is, in essence, as much of a mood scientist – and potentially a mood changer, good or bad – as your standard-issue stand up comedian in a dark smoke-filled room.  At the end of the day, you work really hard to sow the seeds of a therapeutic snicker, and hope the hecklers and naysayers stay away.

In closing, we salute the old Bard himself, William Shakespeare, who apparently would have made an outstanding mediator, for it was he who perhaps put it best:

“Frame your mind to mirth and merriment, which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.”


Vincent Fornias

 Vince Fornias, a bilingual Cuban-American, has participated in over 2,000 mediations and scores of arbitrations. He was engaged for almost 30 years in an active litigation practice (over 100 trials) as a partner of Kantrow, Spaht, Weaver & Blitzer of Baton Rouge in the areas of casualty, products liability, governmental… MORE >

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