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3. Compare your favorite funny to your persistent problem.

Looking back on the problem you identified in step 1, complete the following sentence. (And stay loose; just write whatever pops into your head, without trying to "get it right.")

"My [persistent problem] _______________________________ is like [favorite funny] __________ because ________________________________________________________."

For example, Sandy wrote, "My shyness is like the excited pug because he freaks out and acts manic around other dogs, and I freak out and act manic around other people." Ben said, "My problem with my coworker is like Emerson the baby, who's scared of his mom blowing her nose, because I'm thrown off balance when my coworker argues with me." Della said, "My procrastination is like my poodle covering his eyes in a thunderstorm because I'm hiding from tasks by not looking at them, and I'm ridiculously tense even though everything's really okay."

4. Step into the funny scenario and create a serious solution.

Now close your eyes and imagine you're inside your funny situation. How could you make things better for the person or creature involved? (If this part of the exercise makes you feel goofy, don't worry: Going to a goofy place to loosen up your brain is the point.)

Sandy said: "I'd take the pug to a dog park and help him socialize calmly in real life so TV dogs don't make him lose his cool." Ben's thought was, "I'd show Emerson that nose-blowing can't hurt him, and I'd teach him to say 'Stop!'" Della told me, "Well, when my dog's afraid, it helps to distract him with things he loves. I'll toss his favorite toy, or we lie on the floor together and howl opera."

Write your own serious solution here:

"If I could step into my favorite funny situation, I'd make things better by _____________________________________________________________________."

5. Use your serious solution for your persistent problem.

This next step, the payoff step, is sophisticated brain work, but if you've completed all the advance work, your brain is ready. Staying in a lighthearted mind-set, answer this question: How can you address your persistent problem using roughly the same approach you used to improve your favorite funny situation?

In Sandy's case, the thought of comforting the pug led her to the idea that she could deliberately engage with small groups of "safe" people until she stopped pumping adrenaline at the sight of a crowd. This is called graduated exposure, and it's a psychological skill Sandy had never learned; when she tried it, it proved surprisingly effective.

Soft-spoken Ben had never actually called his coworker on her bad behavior. After thinking about how he'd defend baby Emerson from his mother's nose-blowing, he decided he needed to stand up for himself in a similar way, by telling his coworker to stop being so rude. After some rehearsal, he was ready. When the coworker lashed out in a meeting, Ben calmly but firmly asked her to be more courteous. She blushed and blustered, but seeing that everyone agreed with Ben, she backed off—permanently.

As for Della, she used her poodle-calming strategies to stop procrastinating. When she found herself stalling on a project, instead of angrily pushing harder, she distracted and relaxed herself with pleasant diversions like—yes!—watching funny YouTube videos. The uplift of laughter helped break through Della's paralysis; she found it easier to start working after a little entertainment.

Now, thinking about your solution to your favorite funny situation, it's time to apply that solution to your problem. This, by the way, is why funny moments involving babies or pets are ideal; we tend to be more compassionate toward them than we are toward adults. That compassion makes our serious solutions kinder—and therefore more effective. (And if you're wondering why watching a funny video was preferable to thinking of a funny memory, it's because a video is, in my opinion, more likely to surprise the brain—and thus more likely to startle it into a mode where it can think outside the box.)

Go ahead and finish this sentence: "I could apply my solution to my problem by_________________________________________________________________________."

Next: It's time to get laughing

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