My then-3-year-old daughter was staging a revolt against winter coats on a below-zero January day in Boston.
“You’re making daddy late,” I hollered, glancing at my watch while she transformed into a human-shaped puddle, refusing to cooperate with the coat ceremony.
Eventually, I lost it. Defcon 5. Snatching the coat, I dangled it in front of her adorable, now-red face and shouted, “Put on your coat!”
All went quiet on the home front. She let me dress her, and I hastily grabbed my bag and her, and we crammed ourselves into the car.
Midway to daycare, my normally talkative daughter broke the silence from the back seat.
“But daddy?” she asked.
“What, honey?” I still had a sharp edge to my voice. Not at her anymore. It was a dagger of shame piercing through my entire being there behind the wheel.
“But daddy—I don’t want to wear my f*cking coat!” No anger in her tone. Just bewilderment and a clarity that said, I don’t like the way both that coat and your nastiness feel.
Why Parents and Everyone Needs Mirthfulness for Relationship Moments
I’ve recounted this episode before. I’ve kicked off many mindful parenting talks with this tale. I always receive nods of solidarity from fellow parent-meltdown survivors, those who battled against the uprising within their bodies and minds on days of fatigue, financial pressure, job woes, and then… then… your kid— (how dare they!)—won’t put on their coat, or some other “simple” thing that implies they’re in on the universe’s plot to mess with you.
Oh, if only I could have owned that moment! Here and now, a flicker of that guilt emerges in the subtle clench of my body and mind.
Any parent knows there are endless stress-inducing moments in raising kids. Though it may appear like a distant dream on the event horizon as your kid smears “something” on the sofa, intentionally facing these moments with what I call “mirthfulness” can be a game-changer.
Mirthfulness is the kind of humor everyone needs to step out of the trap of reactive meltdowns and take responsibility for the situation with a new, more opportunity-rich, framed perspective.
Mirthfulness lifts you (and perhaps those within earshot) into a new dimension that points to the universal truth of how stuff unfolds and can be sucky, uncomfortable, gloomy, or downright painful. Despite the mess, ownership lets us see the suck without getting sucked in. Mirthfulness allows us to be more bendy with ourselves when a moment has edges and sour tastes. When we acknowledge the truth of suckiness unfolding, we are observing it, not lost in it.
We can give this unfolding chaos a wry smile and say after a long pause after it’s all hit the metaphorical fan…
“Yeah, well, I’m over here just wondering what circle of hilarity this is…”
Now we can take a poll… Now we can share a giggle… Now others have that wry smile on their faces that says, “Yep, life happens to us all.”
The Science Behind Mirthfulness as an Intentional Key to Unlocking Moments
Research indicates that humor in relationships plays a vital role in enhancing bonding, reducing stress, improving communication, and promoting relationship satisfaction (Cann et al., 2011; Martin & Ford, 2018). Humor helps in defusing conflicts, providing a sense of joy, and creating a positive atmosphere within the relationship (Cann et al., 2011). Moreover, shared laughter strengthens social connections and fosters a sense of togetherness, contributing to a fulfilling relationship (Martin & Ford, 2018).
Case Study: Enhancing Connection Through Mirthfulness
This example study showcases how humor in a relationship can contribute to positive outcomes and strengthen the bond between partners.
Alex and Taylor, a young couple in their late 20s, were dealing with stress due to their intense jobs. They found it challenging to communicate effectively and maintain a Defcon3 or lower atmosphere in their relationship.
Alex: “I’ve got so much work to do. I don’t think you get it… It’s overwhelming!”
Taylor: “Maybe we should hire a clone for you,” sarcasm dripping from the edge of her half smile.
Alex: “Ohh—Thank you, genius! Why didn’t I think of that? I must be a complete idiot! … Of course! that would be perfect! One can go to work and just stay there and move my career up the ladder, and the other can stay here and listen to you belittle me!”
So, yes, there’s technically “humor” in their exchange, but it’s tainted with the built-up resentments and painful moments not seen or honored between them. This sort of caustic, nasty humor is a no-go.
But let’s try it again with mirthfulness—intentionally speaking toward what is lighter, what is just funny about the factfulness of the moment in a way that joins people, unites them in a cause, or points to the universality of the struggle people have in such moments. That intentional, connective target is mirthfulness.
Taylor: “We’re losers for letting the laundry pile up like this. It’s gonna take forever. We’re going to be down here forever, in dire need of clone to get all this done!”
Alex: (chuckles) “A clone trio it is! But not of either of us; let’s bring in a clone of someone who could really bang this out—maybe Martha Stewart! We can then go grab a Mocha Latte down the street and maybe she’ll make us a soup-to-nuts dinner while she’s at it!”
What Research Suggests You Can Expect From Practicing Mirthfulness
- Stress reduction: The light-hearted banter alleviates stress, providing a momentary escape from work pressures.
- Enhanced communication: Humor eases communication, making it easier to discuss their concerns and find solutions.
- Strengthened connection: Shared laughter deepens the bond and provides a reminder of the fact that there were fun, light reasons they came together in the first place.
Making Mirthfulness a Part of Your Relationship Arsenal
Mirthfulness is not about mocking yourself or others, nor is it about denying, minimizing, or suppressing pain. It’s about touching the truth of what’s happening in a moment and, yet, saying, “Being a human being means we get to laugh at the folly of thinking for a nanosecond that we were immune to the unfolding of chaos.” Mirthfulness is the beginning of something good in your experience when circumstances are perhaps anything but.
How’s that frame of chest-beating, blaming, freaking out, shutting down, or self-berating working out? For me as a parent, a professional, or a person in the world, not so much. Today, try some mirthfulness when you step in “it” with someone. With mirthfulness, you can get a pie in the face, and eat it, too.
Try This Now: “Curious George”
- Like a playful child (or naughty monkey!) how curious can you be in this moment as to what is occurring inside your body and in the context around you?
- Even when difficulty arises, what happens if you get curious about exactly what might be there that otherwise you would miss with habits of judging, overanalyzing, or control-focused reacting?
- Monkeys and kids play with the mundane—they fiddle, find, discover, and monkey around with moments of mirthfulness. How about you and how about now?