The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist
Mar 2009, No. I
Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!
Table of Contents
Shrink Rap I: The Science and Art of
Motivational Humor: Definition and Functions
Shrink Rap II: "Stress Doc's ™ Tips for
Becoming a Healing Humorist."
Testimonials: 15th Sustainment Brigade, Ft.
Readers: A Jewish Perspective
Main Essay: "Humor and the Work Team --
Healing, Harmonizing, and
Harnessing Morale and Productivity: Four Case Examples."
Books, CDs, Training/Marketing Kit: Email
or go to
1) Shrink Rap I: "The
Science and Art of Motivational Humor: Definition and Functions." The Stress
Doc defines and sheds light on higher purpose, motivational humor as a creative,
stress-reducing tool for these highly charged times. And to use a tool
effectively and creatively, it helps to know both its form and functions.
2) Shrink Rap II: "Stress
Doc's ™ Tips for Becoming a Healing Humorist." Reflecting on his evolving role
as a humorist, "The Stress Doc" first captures the essence of healing humor.
Next he identifies a variety of skills and strategies that can enable you to
inject harmonizing and healing humor into a variety of social/professional
3) Main Essay: "Humor and the Work
Team -- Healing, Harmonizing, and
Harnessing Morale and Productivity: Four Case Examples." The Stress Doc
provides case vignettes to illustrate humor's potential for enhancing the task
and supportive capacities of a work team while helping the organization as a
whole practice in-house "R & R" -- recreation and rejuvenation.
Shrink Rap I:
The Stress Doc defines and sheds light on higher
purpose, motivational humor as a creative, stress-reducing tool for these highly
charged times. And to use a tool effectively and creatively, it helps to know
both its form and functions.
The Science and Art of Motivational Humor:
Definition and Functions
In crisis-driven, 24/7, relentlessly upgrading and unpredictably downsizing (or
reorganizing) world, it's no surprise that individuals, teams, divisions, and
even entire companies can become "stress carriers" or high stress environments.
A critical challenge for the organization is helping personnel, and especially
the foundational task and support system -- the work team -- maintain both
productivity and morale in these "do more with less" times. How can the HR
professional along with all levels of management as well as formal and informal
leaders help: (a) fight the "burnout blues," (b) prevent a "lean-and-MEAN"
attitude from becoming the department or company mantra, and (c) disarm an "us
against them" environment that invariably breeds hostile competition or in-house
Tough issues for sure…still, have no fear (well, maybe a little) the "Stress
Doc" is here to champion an underutilized conflict-resolving and
performance-enhancing intervention tool. So what is this magical and methodical
instrument for preventing your company's "esprit de corps" from turning into an
"esprit de corpse?" It's deceptively simple: HUMOR!
Humor Clarified and Defined
However, this humor, what I call "motivational humor," is a lot more than just a
good joke starting off a team or staff meeting. It's not having a humor day,
where management puts on clown noses or wigs. Nor is it firing loud sounding
toy guns to act out "playfully" disagreement or to distract momentarily during a
tense problem-solving meeting. While all these actions may temporarily lighten
a work atmosphere, I'm interested in more imaginative and involving
interventions that truly arise from live issues and conflicts, while they are
occurring. And this instrumental humor should have both short run and,
potentially, ongoing impact. Motivational humor is:
(1) healing -- releases frustration and opens up communication channels
within and among work teams
(2) harmonizing -- busts or gently blows away those trust barriers
between "superiors" and "subordinates"
(3) harnessing -- generates energy, creativity, and coordination or team
synergy both short run and ongoing.
To better understand this action concept, let us capture its semantic
foundation. According to The Random House Dictionary, "humor (is) the
recognition and expression of the incongruities and peculiarities in a situation
or conduct." A capacity for humor, especially positive motivational humor,
often reveals an ability to appreciate and play with life's absurdities; to poke
good-natured (and sometimes a bit more pointed) fun at others and, especially,
to laugh at our own flaws and foibles. In fact, for the pioneer of
psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, humor is the highest psychological defense
mechanism. Such mature humor and the capacity for self-effacing laughter,
reflects the encouragement of our efforts and a patient tolerance of our
Eight Functions of Humor
Humor also has many essential bio-psychosocial functions, eight of which I've
captured in an acronym. Humor is good for what AILS you:
A = Arousal and Affiliation.
Arousal. Hearty laughter provides dopamine-like stimulation when bored and
endorphin-induced relaxation when tense. I believe humor expert, Dr. David Fry,
noted that laughing with gusto is like turning your body into a big vibrator,
giving vital organs a brief but vibrant internal massage.
Affiliation. One manifestation of "emotional intelligence" is a capacity
for a humor that both heals and harmonizes, that reminds us of our common
humanity. As the early 20th century disabilities pioneer and
universally-acclaimed humanitarian, Helen Keller, observed: "The world is so
full of care and sorrow it is a gracious debt we owe one another to discover the
bright crystals of delight hidden in somber circumstances and irksome tasks."
On a more pedestrian level, healing humor not only reflects an ability to walk
in another's shoes, but especially to feel the other's bunions!"
I = Incongruity and Imagination.
Incongruity. As mentioned, humor allows us to go beyond rigid "black or
white" and "all or none" thinking; it enables us to generate imaginative and
even paradoxical possibilities (such as my self-described professional label of
"Psychohumorist" ™). As the quintessential American humorist and satirist, Mark
Twain, ingenuously noted, "Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before
their union were not perceived to have any relation." Humor that plays with the
inconsistent, unexpected, and contradictory helps us think and laugh "out of the
Imagination. Let's keep pushing the humor envelope: research has even
linked humor to innovative problem-solving. One study revealed that people who
had just watched a short comedy film of television "bloopers" were better able
to find a creative solution to a puzzling problem than were people who had
watched a film about math (zzzzz!) or people who had exercised. Humor seems to
stimulate the right side of our brain allowing us to think more broadly, to
forge exaggerated and surprising possibilities, and to see complex and otherwise
L = Liberation and Letting Go.
Liberation. Humor often facilitates the discussion of a variety of subjects
that may be taboo or off limits, for example, sex, religion, or politics.
Speaking the unspeakable is now possible. Consider this example of both
liberation and its limits. Living in free-spirited New Orleans in the '80s, I
would close my stress programs with, "Laughter is the best tension reliever and
sex is second…So if you're having funny sex you probably are in good shape."
Now in the "Big Easy," that always got a hearty laugh. When I moved to more
politically correct, Washington, DC, in 1990 and attempted my "tried and
(slightly) blue" closing, the reaction was mixed; a lot more nervous laughter or
no laughter at all.
Soon I shifted my closing content, reciting the "Serenity Prayer": "Grant me
the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the
things I can, and the wisdom to know…where to hide the bodies." This witticism
definitely resonated with people daily fighting the bureaucratic beast.
(Obviously, while you might take the boy out of New Orleans, you can't take the
sassy, N'Awlins style out of the boy.)
Letting Go. Humor can help transform the serious into the silly, which
may facilitate self-acceptance. A classic example is 20th century man of
letters, Anatole France's, pithy observation staring at his reflection upon
turning seventy-five: "Mirrors just aren't what they used to be." He is
demonstrating the courage both to "let go" of the past and to accept a more
vulnerable image of self -- with warts and wrinkles, flaws and foibles.
However, Monsieur France's liberation, while personal, is not so singular. In
general, people are more open to a serious message when it's gift-wrapped with
S = Superiority and Solidarity.
Superiority. Humor is a potent vehicle for bringing down to earth inflated
egos and arrogant individuals. (Think of Will Rogers, George Carlin or
political cartoons.) Humor and the ensuing laughter may also provide the
productive release of frustration and anger. However, I must raise a cautionary
red flag: depending on a person's motives, humor can have a decidedly hostile
edge. Too often an individual or group uses humor as a weapon of attack or to
elevate one's own self-esteem or status at the expense of another party.
Self-Effacing Solidarity. Still, there's real potential for healing when
you can use self-effacing humor to invert the superiority function. A
motivational humorist may poke fun at his or her own vulnerabilities or
imperfections (or to vividly illustrate having been down and out) to help affirm
another's sense of self or to aid recovery from setback while reducing
polarizing status distinctions. In addition, laughing at oneself is a
protective vest for blunting hostile slings and arrows. Remember, an ability to
laugh at your own flaws and foibles means beating those biased, judgmental,
"know it all" critics to the punch line: "Believe me; I can poke fun of myself
a lot better than you ever can!" And these antagonists have lost their favorite
target – an oversensitive ego.
Here's a personal example. In my stress seminars, when hair loss is mentioned
as a sign of stress my immediate response, using an exaggerated tone, is, "I
resemble that remark." This is followed by: "You all should have more respect
for my (vanishing) hair. It was recently listed in the World Wildlife
Federation's ‘endangered species’ list.”
Finally, I believe there is no better way of inducing a sense of "solidarity"
than when fellow sufferers can laugh together and through mutual openness
realize a common fate - the journey along the evolutionary path of becoming
"learners not losers."
In closing, perhaps the pioneering film genius, Charlie Chaplin, succinctly
captured the basic and broad purpose of humor:
A paradoxical thing is that in making comedy, the tragic is precisely
arouses the funny…we have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of
natural forces and (in order) not to go crazy.
Hopefully, you can discover and design your own Motivational Humor Path and can
help yourself and others…Practice Safe Stress!
Shrink Rap II:
Reflecting on his evolving role as a humorist, "The Stress Doc" first captures
the essence of healing humor. Next he identifies a variety of skills and
strategies that can enable you to inject harmonizing and healing humor into a
variety of social/professional transactions.
Stress Doc's ™ Tips for Becoming a Healing Humorist
During a recent professional networking dinner, two familiar questions
surfaced. A colleague who had attended my conference workshop wanted to know,
"How did you develop an ability to use humor in your presentations?" And, "Were
you always a comic or class clown?" An occasional public presenter herself, the
implicit message was clear: "How can I use humor more effectively; can I learn
to be funnier?"
Reasonable questions: while there is a funny bone, I don't believe there is a
funny gene. (And as a youngster I lacked the needed confidence and brashness to
be class clown.) While we may not replicate the manic antics of Robin Williams,
the outrageous portraits of Richard Pryor or capture the delightful absurdity of
former Saturday Night Live star, Gilda Radner, because of the powerfully
poignant nature of our work, social workers and other allied health (as well as
empathic souls) professionals are poised to be healing humorists. As the
pioneering comedic film genius, Charlie Chaplin, observed: A paradoxical thing
is that in making comedy, the tragic is precisely that which arouses the
funny…we have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and
(in order) not to go crazy.
And one of the world's great humanitarians, the undaunted perceptual trail
blazer, Helen Keller, beautifully captured, if you will, a healing humor mission
The world is so full of care and sorrow that it is a gracious debt we owe to
one another to discover the bright crystals of delight in somber circumstances
and irksome tasks.
So how can individual professionals as well as their organizations embark on a
healing humor quest? For transforming darkness and heaviness into lightness or
enlightenment, consider these "Four Key Healing Humor Skills and Strategies":
1. Distinguish Humor and Wit.
a) Humor recognizes the absurdities in personal, everyday situations and
playfully embraces our fears and foibles. It often has a silly, non-verbal
component exaggerating voice tones, facial gestures and body movements. I liken
it to letting the air out of a blown up balloon, and watching it crazily circle,
sputter and plop.
Try this: To impart healing humor share a story with a friend or client that
involves embracing and gently laughing at your own flaws and foibles. Of
course, the motive should not be gaining acceptance or sympathy from the other
party. When self-effacing humor comes from a place of integrity, you will
simply seem less perfect and more accessible in your audience's eyes. Not only
are you speaking the language, but also you're walking your friend or client's
talk. And you are being a model for greater self-acceptance. (See my rapping
b) Wit quickly and imaginatively expresses the connection between things
improbable or contradictory. As previously noted, America's original humorist,
Mark Twain, said it best: "Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before
their union were not perceived to have any relation." Wit is highly verbal with
a sudden, sharp edge (which, alas, can easily go over the healing edge into
hostility or ridicule.). According to Shakespeare, "Brevity is the soul of
wit." Think of wit as sticking a pin into that inflated balloon (or a puffed
up ego). An example of concise wit, perhaps, is my self-invented title of "Psychohumorist"
™. (Of course, I let folks decide where to place the emphasis on this word.)
Here's a concise listing of traits distinguishing humor from wit:
Saying funny things Saying things in a
What is being observed What is being mentally
Strong nonverbal component Highly verbal
Slow, physical exaggeration, silly Quick, sharp, surprising
Letting air out of balloon (sputtering) Sticking pin into
Extreme: ridiculous Extreme: ridicule
Finally, an ability to integrate humor and wit may just help civilize the world
(see 2a below).
2. Learn to Reframe. A key humor technique is the ability to look at
life events the same as everyone else and see something different. For example,
the early 20th c. French novelist, Anatole France, examining himself in a
mirror, upon turning 75, observed: "Mirrors just aren't what they used to be."
(And if you can gently poke fun at yourself you've enhanced the "higher power of
humor" effect.) Consider these two reframing examples -- one is interpersonal,
the other organizational:
a) Interpersonal. As a mid-'90s Stress and Violence Prevention
Consultant at a large US Postal Service Processing & Distribution Plant walking
the workfloor was commonplace. (Believe me, humor was not a luxury.) One day, I
came upon a couple bantering, seemingly playfully, if not a bit seductively. A
collegial chorus was also present. The banter turned a bit provocative and the
woman suddenly mouthed the "f u" expletive while throwing her antagonist the
proverbial finger. The onlookers quickly warned the couple about me: "Be
careful, this guy is the 'Company Shrink.'" Then the guy egged me on: "Now
what do you think about what she just did?" With tension building, I nervously
paused, then rallied: "What do I think? I just think she thinks you're # 1,"
and walked off with collective laughter behind me. (A vital humor skill: learn
to playfully nip the hand or hands that feed you!)
b) Organizational. Years back a Federal court was automating its record
keeping system and was getting resistance from a number of employees. This was
especially true for those most affected by the change in a key form. Not
surprisingly, employees had not been consulted about the change. Instead of
only focusing on employee resistance to change, I challenged management to
examine their one-sided decision-making process. I also thought employees were
grieving, that is, experiencing feelings of loss, both of a familiar mode of
operation as well as the loss of job control and sense of professional
autonomy. After discussing the managerial missteps, I shared a "pass in the
impasse aha!" with court leadership: "Let's have a 'forms funeral.'" All
employees would have a chance to bemoan the loss of the old, express concerns
about new procedures and, most important, criticize authority for not initially
seeking group input. Not surprisingly, this novel, perhaps somewhat absurd,
communal catharsis broke through the barriers both to accepting change and to
participatory decision-making. We also began healing some organizational
3. Be Aware of Context, Play with Content. Sensitivity to your audience
is vital, especially if wading into provocative areas, like sex or religion.
For example, when I moved from, "devil may care" N'Awlins to Washington, DC, I
had to rethink carrying over a stress workshop closing punchline: "They say
laughter is the best tension reliever and sex is second…So if you're having
funny sex you're probably in good shape!" Politically correct audience
discomfort eventually led to a different close. I now stress the importance of
"The Serenity Prayer": "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot
change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know where to
hide the bodies!" (Okay, so you can take the boy out of "The Big Easy" but not
the irreverence from the boy.)
4. Be Vivid and Visual, Surprising and Self-Effacing. In my "Practice
Safe Stress" workshop (a clever witticism, in my humble opinion) after
presenting "The Four Stages of Burnout," there's a decided heaviness in the
room. To uplift the group mood, I unexpectedly put on a Blues Brothers hat,
black sunglasses and pull out a black tambourine. I then announce that I'm
pioneering the field of psychologically humorous rap music, calling it, of
course…"Shrink Rap" ™ Productions. Once the groans subside, I counter: "We'll
see who has the last groan," and suddenly belt out, while prancing about the
When it comes to feelings do you stuff them inside
Is tough John Wayne your emotional guide?
And it's not just men so proud and tight-lipped
For every Rambo there seems to be a Rambette.
There's more, but I'll spare you. The crowd goes from bewildered to bowled
over. After the laughter and applause dies down, I revert to self-effacing
form: "That's okay; I've been doing this long enough. I can tell when an
audience is applauding out of relief." I also reassure them it only takes two
hours for the effects of my rapping to wear off. Clearly, being joyfully on the
edge, providing some witty lyrics while poking fun at my own absurdity, is a
great way to break down barriers and bond with an audience. And, remember,
people enjoy and are more open to a serious message when it's gift-wrapped with
So, hopefully, you now are inspired to pursue some luminous lunacy, to explore
the role of healing humorist and, of course, to…Practice Safe Stress!
15th Sustainment Brigade, Ft. Hood, TX
[Predeployment Offsite on "Stress, Communications and Team Building" for 70
Officers and Spouses]
Feb 23, 2009
I am not 100% sure what the CG (Commanding General) intends for his offsite, but
he certainly expressed some interest in your services (stress mgmt, team bldg,
conflict resolution techniques) for the 13th HQs offsite starting 29 MAR.
Boss, with your permission, I can work this piece with Doc and offer you some
proposals. At a minimum, I would recommend that we plan on the "drawing
exercise" and the role play skits. BOTH of these are very revealing!
Mark...what a great time you facilitated. I especially am appreciative of the
time you carved out to mentor and observe/interject with the spouses. Simply
outstanding feedback from all of them!
COL Larry Phelps
Commander, 15th SUS BDE
SUPPORT THE ACTION!
Subj: A Jewish Perspective
A Jewish man was sitting in Starbucks reading an Arab newspaper. A friend of
his, who happened to be in the same store, noticed this strange phenomenon.
Very upset, he approached him and said: 'Moshe, have you lost your mind? Why
are you reading an Arab newspaper?
Moshe replied, 'I used to read the Jewish newspapers, but what did I find? Jews
being persecuted, Israel being attacked, Jews disappearing through
assimilation and intermarriage, Jews living in poverty? So I switched to the
Arab newspaper. Now what do I find? Jews own all the banks, Jews control the
media, Jews are all rich and powerful, Jews rule the world. The news is so
Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social
Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist"
known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In
addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant
for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits and is AOL's
"Online Psychohumorist" ™. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA)
Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor"
programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions, Ft. Hood, Texas. A
former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress
Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of
Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" --
www.stressdoc.com -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio
(NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive
his free e-newsletter, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 301-946-0865.
And to view web video highlights of a Stress Doc Keynote, go to
(c) Mark Gorkin 2009
Shrink Rap™ Productions