In the winter of 1997, Terri James got an early morning call bearing the type of news we all dread most: Her mother was dead. And she had killed herself.
As if that wasn’t enough, an ensuing legal battle over her mother’s estate put James at odds with much of her extended family. An only child whose father had died years earlier, she suddenly found herself grieving, angry, and isolated. “It’s hard to imagine a darker time,” James says. “I had no idea how I was going to get through it.”
Two weeks after returning to her job as an assistant vice president at New York City-based financial services firm TIAA-CREF, James realized she was overwhelmed. She decided to take a leave of absence and sought out traditional therapy that included grief counseling for suicide survivors. She also began searching for the foster family she lost when she was adopted at age 4.
James found them and enjoyed a wonderful reunion. It was a blessing, but it also opened emotional doors that had been closed for years. Then one day a close friend sought James’ help with a speech and, impressed by her sense of humor, came up with an idea that would turn her life around.
“The speech dealt with a topic that called for a lot of academic jargon and legalese,” says James. “It was really dense and dull, and I was trying to help her lighten it up. She thought I had a knack for it, so she signed me up for a class in stand-up comedy writing. My first thought was, ‘There’s no way.'”
James soon discovered something we all know: It’s easy to laugh when you feel good. Better yet, it’s easy to feel good when you laugh. But when you’re angry or hurting, laughter is not part of your lexicon. Wallowing in misery may cause more damage than you realize.
The American Association for Therapeutic Humor says one of the things too often missing from our day is a good laugh. A 1996 study of hundreds of adults found happiness to be directly related to humor, not merely to life circumstances. The study reported that those with the ability to laugh are 30% more likely to be happy than those without.
Other studies have linked humor to creativity, productivity, health, and even the physical recovery process. So, it stands to reason that humor can also help turn our mental and spiritual struggles around.
Of course, knowing this and doing something about it are two different things. James, for one, was apprehensive. “I’d only done public speaking on work-related topics,” she says. “Comedy is personal. You have to reveal yourself, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. Then there’s the whole question of, Am I funny? Comedy to me was [Richard] Pryor, Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy—not me.”
In spite of her misgivings, she went to the class and was immediately hooked. “Somebody else in that class was adopted, and she used it in her comedy in a way that was really