Humor, Laughter, Personal Power, and Peace

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The mission of World Laughter Tour, Inc., is a statement of vision, hope, and purpose:
“Together, we can lead the world to health, happiness, and peace, through laughter.”
We have the power to bring love, laughter and humor into our lives.
We have the power to be kind.
We have the power to be sane.
We have the power to be the change we want to see.

This blog post is an attempt to continue understanding the human condition with a conversation to explore the connections between humor, laughter, power, and peace. There is much more to be said on the topic than can be written here; that’s why the last word is etcetera. There are more conversations to be had, and much that we need to understand. I hope this will be the start of a contribution to this understanding.

I am grateful to one of my most brilliant teachers, Dr. William F. Fry, Jr., who has written eloquently about the history of humor being so feared by some of the most the powerful leaders of nations that they went to great lengths to severely suppress it. (I saw that a few years ago in Venezuela under Chavez.)

 “No person can be truly at peace with himself if he does not live up to his moral capacity.”Norman Cousins (1915-1990)

Many of us who love and appreciate humor feel a special admiration and gratitude for Norman Cousins. World Laughter Tour is deeply rooted to Cousins, a man for whom Wikipedia provides a one-sentence summary, telling us that he was “an American political journalist, author, professor, and world peace advocate.” Few people realize how prolific he was as a writer, and how passionate he was about peace and ending war. Speaking in a 1987 interview about his book, “The Pathology of Power,” you can hear him expound on a part of his vision for achieving peace. Listen as he reads his First Principles for Peace.


Humor and laughter have the power to help or to hurt; to lift people up or tear people down; to bring people together by showing us what we have in common, or to divide us by emphasizing our differences. Properly applied, humor has healing power. According to Allen Klein, a pioneer in the therapeutic humor movement, “Humor can help you cope with the unbearable so that you can stay on the bright side of things until the bright side actually comes along.”

Toxic situations arise when humor is misused. Zingers, insults, and put-downs can be wielded by a “hostile humor tyrant” who hurts someone’s feelings and then denies responsibility by claiming, paradoxically, that it was only a joke.

Abuse results from one person taking undue advantage, for selfish benefit, of their power over another person**.

“I was only kidding.”

Unresolved paradoxes lead to quandaries, befuddlement, confusion, uncertainty, and maybe a headache. These states of mind are not particularly conducive to mirth, humor or laughter.

Philosophical paradox.
Practical paradox.

To the extent that you can understand, resolve, and accept paradoxes, you will be better able to recognize and deal with toxic humor, and then make better choices about the humor you choose to use with others. Joel Goodman, founder of The Humor Project, says, “Laughter should be humor made from pain, not pain inflicted by humor.”An African proverb on the topic of hurtful words reminds us, “The axe forgets, but the tree remembers.”

An old, pun-riddle defines a paradox as two physicians. (A pair-of-docs. Get it?) The dictionary definition of paradox is: a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.

A wry definition of maturity is the power to do whatever you want even if your parents are in favor of it. The dictionary definition of power is: (1) ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something. (2) great or marked ability to do or act; strength; might; force. (3) the possession of control or command over others; authority; ascendancy: i.e., power over men’s minds.

To help us understand more about this topic, so that we do a better job of harnessing the positive power of humor and laughter, here is a list of some truths about the paradoxes of power in Sheldon Kopp’s*, “Rock, Paper, Scissors” (CompCare Publishers, Minneapolis, 1989).

The Paradoxes of Personal Power

1.         Rock breaks scissors, scissors cut paper, paper covers rock. Power depends on the situation.
2.         Everyone has dreams of triumph and fantasias of humiliation.
3.         No matter how powerful we are, or think we are, some people are stronger.
4.         However powerless we may feel, others are weaker.
5.         Sometimes life is so out of control that there is nothing we can do to make things right.
6.         Self-esteem based on feeling powerful is weak.
7.         Be confident that you will continue to make mistakes.
8.         Whether we have too much or too little, power is always a problem.
9.         The excessive use of power may ruin what you set out to improve.
10.       The freedom to do as you please is one kind of power.
11.       Coping with helplessness is another.
12.       We must give up trying to control others.
13.       Inner power comes from loving others, not from being loved.
14.       We must temper appreciation for power when we have it with respect for others when they don’t.            
15.       We must learn to take responsibility for both our power and our helplessness. It sounds simple; but it isn’t easy!
16.       It takes one kind of courage to wait patiently and another to get on with it.
17.       In our right pocket we need to keep one reminder: “For my sake, God created the universe,” and another in our left pocket: “I am dust and ashes.”
18. There is no way for any of us to be totally on top of every aspect of our lives.
19.       We will only succeed some of the time. The only thing we can do is keep trying.
20.       No one is ever totally safe from harm.
21.       Willingness to risk can bring rewards we can’t get otherwise.
22.       If we choose to run scared, our capacity for love is limited.
23.       Timid lives are very dull.
24.       If we learn to tell false alarms from real ones, we can decide which risks are worth taking.
25.       When we deal with fear, the way out is in.
26.       Without trust, we can’t accept the intimacy of gently holding an other’s trembling heart in our hands, or placing ours in theirs.
27.       We’re all helpless when it comes to predicting what will happen next.
28.       None of us feels safe being completely open.
29.       If no one knows you, who can love you?
30.       Denial increases the dangers of what we fear.
31.       Too often we form negative attachments rather than face the fear of being alone.
32.       Inner power has less to do with pleasing others than it does with doing as we please.
33.       Defying or complying with authority has nothing to do with living freely.
34.       We don’t have the power to make someone love us.
35.       Laughter is the sound of freedom.
36.       Sometimes there’s nothing we can do but wait.
37.       We will all be fools at times. When we accept that, our imagination opens to possibilities we were once too wise to consider.
38.       If it’s not one thing, it’s another.
39.       Life is not a matter to be managed.
40.       A person can’t do what can’t be done.
41.       Like Life, Death makes fools of us all.
42.       None of us can afford to miss the opportunities for the freedom to take charge of ourselves and to laugh and enjoy what we can.
43.       However well we may prepare, the moment belongs to God.

If you like this thought-provoking values-clarifying list, you might also like Kopp’s 43-item Eschatological Laundry List, from ‘If you Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him’. It begins with:
1. This is it.
2. There are no hidden meanings.
3. You can’t get there from here, and besides there is no place to go.

*Sheldon Kopp (29 March 1929 – 29 March 1999) was a psychotherapist and author, based in Washington, D.C., who wrote about self-esteem. He was born in New York City, and received his PhD from the New School for Social Research. In addition to his private practice, he served as a Psychotherapy Supervisor for the Pastoral Counselling and Consultation Centres in Washington. He was a prolific writer. Kopp is author of many fine books including “If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Kill Him!”, and “Raise Your Right Hand Against Fear, Extend The Other In Compassion”. He is also popular for his quotes. One of them is, “All of the significant battles are waged within the self.” 

**My book, “Super Humor Power” presents 79 of the most-often cited guidelines about what you need to know, think about, and do, to have positive non-toxic-humor in your life.

Etc. (…and there is more.)

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About the Author

Steve Wilson

Award-winning psychologist, Steve Wilson, also known as The Joyologist and The Cheerman of the Bored, has spent 30 years specializing in applied and therapeutic humor with a humanitarian mission. As Director of National Humor Month, he intertwines science and ancient wisdom with substance and humor to create practical methods to lead the world to health, happiness and peace through laughter. More than six thousand people have completed his unique training in how to create therapeutic laughter, and tens of thousands more around the world have been uplifted by his talks, classes, books, and articles. He established the World Laughter Tour, Inc., in 1998, to be a rich resource and inspiration for improving productivity, health, and well being in business, healthcare and education. For more information and