Snowmen
Illustration by James Worrell
Back when I used to go running every day, my favorite route included a long, narrow path between two high hedges. At some point, a pair of blackbirds decided to nest in the hedge. The kamikaze male took to dive-bombing as I jogged, flying at me from behind, grazing my head, swooping forward to land on a nearby perch, waiting until I passed, then bombing all over again. After five or six attacks, I began to feel like Tippi Hedren in The Birds. One quiet morning as I neared the hedge, I got so nervous I picked up a stick for self-defense.

Surprisingly, the blackbird didn't strike from his usual spot. In fact, the path was terrifyingly silent. With every step, my tension built until—whoosh—the telltale rush of air behind me. Nerves strained to the breaking point, I leaped straight up, waving my stick and screaming, "Leave me alone!" At which point I realized there was no blackbird behind me—just an elderly man on a bicycle, looking shocked, hurt, and afraid.

I like to reminisce about this incident when I should be working. It never fails to tickle me. Oh, the expression on that poor man's face! The suddenness with which I went from civilized jogger to psycho cavewoman!

But you know what's really funny? While snorting happily at this memory, I'm actually increasing my productivity. Researchers at Northwestern University have found that people who'd just watched a comedy video were better at solving a word puzzle than subjects who'd watched clips from a horror film or a lecture on physics. It seems a part of the brain activated by laughter and lightheartedness is especially well suited to helping us find clever solutions to our problems.

Since coming across this research, I've been enthusiastically leveraging the jolly fact that laughter can create the ideal mind-set for problem solving. In fact, I've come up with an exercise that harnesses deliberately induced lightheartedness to help overcome the chronic dilemmas of everyday life. I call it the PPFFSS method, short for Persistent Problem/Favorite Funny/Serious Solution. Ideally, this method makes use of the Internet, but your brain can do the job, too.

The Persistent-Problem, Favorite-Funny, Serious-Solution (PPFFSS) Method


1. Name your problem.

Finish the statement that follows by identifying a difficulty you struggle with. For example, Sandy's issue was shyness. Ben's was a coworker who always argued with him in meetings. Della's was procrastination.

"I have a persistent problem with _____________________________________."

2. Find your favorite funny.

Watch the YouTube videos listed below.When you don't have access to a computer, think of something silly you've seen, especially something funny that happened to an animal or a baby (I'll explain why below). For instance, Della's poodle covers his eyes with his paws whenever there's a thunderstorm. Maybe your kitten attacks people's shoelaces as if she's killing cobras, or your 8-month-old niece gasps in alarm whenever she glimpses her own feet.

If no funny pet/baby memory comes to mind, think of something you did yourself that now makes you laugh. My run-in with the birds and the old man is an example.

Now choose the video or memory that made you smile the most or laugh the hardest:_____________________________________

Next: Does your favorite funny look anything like your persistent problem?