Humour in the Face of Adversity

Does having a sense of humour help our survival?


As Australians we are well-versed in the realities of natural disaster and danger. We live in a land consistently ravaged by bushfires, floods, storms, cyclones, earthquakes, heatwaves and drought. We boast our fair share of the world's most poisonous creatures, like spiders, box jellyfish, crocodiles, sharks and six of the world’s top ten deadliest snakes.  

Arguably our national sense of humour began in response to simply surviving in these harsh conditions. After all, humour has long been recognised and used by cultures as a coping mechanism. Our indigenous Aborigines are widely acknowledged as having great “bush” humour and storytelling skills. Our laid back, 'she’ll be right, mate' sensibilities might have also began as free settlers and ex convicts encountered the harsh continent. 

The comedian Mark Little once said, “The country itself is the ultimate joke; the wave you body-surf into shore after a day at the beach could contain a shark or a rip-tide and, when you get back, your house could have been burnt to the ground in a bush fire. That's where the whole 'no worries' thing comes from”.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Dr. Barry Bitman writing on laughter in the face of adversity says that change causes humans a lot of stress and the people who adapt are also the ones who succeed.  So we can panic or get depressed; or choose to laugh and make the best of the challenging situation. 

He says humour gives a unique opening to move forward on a positive note. Laughter is even scientifically proven to reverse the negative biological effects of stress. Choosing humour in the face of adversity brings us a much-needed sense of control, which facilitates healing.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh noticed the use of humour as a source of strength for people affected by the Queensland floods saying, “Part of what it means to be a Queenslander is to laugh in the face of adversity”.

Disaster psychology expert Professor Justin Kenardy says the dry Aussie sense of humour helps us put things in perspective. Laughing is also social because we “basically laugh with other people”. (Courier Mail, Jan 25, 2011)

Of course many people who suffer through a natural disaster experience longer term distress.  

According to psychologist Caroline McNally, who is on the national register to provide free counselling to victims of natural disasters in Australia and New Zealand, it’s normal to feel emotional during and after natural disaster.

Physical, emotional and mental symptoms among many can include shock, anxiety, depression, feeling overwhelmed, lost, worried for their safety and that of their family; sadness, grief, anger, nausea, headaches and behavioural and physical changes.

There are many steps people can take to help cope with these emotions, like stress relieving techniques, talking to others and getting into old routines.

Some people can take months or years to deal with their feelings but the earlier they are dealt with, the better.

Humour is beneficial to the coping and healing process that many Australians may well have hard-wired into the national character, but individuals having trouble readjusting following a disaster shouldn’t hesitate to seek professional help.

Read more on this topic here.