The Critical Balance
Updated: Jul 30
How you handle stress depends on the demands you face and your resources for coping, not on any one factor alone. Just as physical health depends partly on the number and strength of germs you are exposed to and partly on your body’s ability to resist these invaders, psychological health depends to some degree on the people and problems in your life and partly on your mental and emotional strength. If you have strong physical, psychological, spiritual, and economic resources, you can deal with tremendous amounts of change in your life, personal handicaps, and many little hassles.1 The following figure shows the relationship between the demands we face and our resources for coping.
The Critical Balance
Hans Selye describes maintaining balance as a process of adaptation. Failure to adapt results in too rapid aging and early death.
Life is largely a process of adaptation to the circumstances in which we exist. A perennial give-and-take has been going on between living matter and its inanimate surroundings, between one living being and another, ever since the dawn of life in the prehistoric oceans. The secret of health and happiness lies in successful adjustment to the ever-changing conditions…the penalties for failure in the great process of adaptation are disease and unhappiness.2
An important point in the demands-resources equation is the need for renewal. The person who expends resources (time, energy, and emotion) without replenishment ultimately experiences physical, psychological, and spiritual fatigue, and burnout may occur. A tree needs sun and rain, and a person must receive to give. In your own life, what are you doing to meet the demands you face and to replenish your resources?
The following application Who’s on Top—The World or You? provides an estimate of your critical balance at this time.
Application: Who’s on Top—The World or You?
For an evaluation of your critical balance, compare the demands you face in the left column and your resources for coping in the right. Circle the number between each pair that reflects conditions as they are now. Add your total score.
Scoring and Interpretation Everyone faces demands, and everyone has resources for coping. Also, times and conditions change for each of us.
If Your Score Is: Your Balance Is:
20–40 Poor. Major resources and coping skills are needed.
41–100 Negative to average. Additional resources and coping skills are needed.
101–160 Average to positive. You are doing well but should continue to improve.
161–200 Excellent. Your critical balance is strongly in your favor.
Take Action If your score is low, you should take steps to improve your critical balance. Identify your weakest areas and address those deficiencies first. For example, you could develop a better sense of control by clarifying your goals in life and following good time management principles.
Note that each pair in the critical balance test has the potential to act as either a demand or a resource. For example, a marriage may be unhappy and distressful, or it may be a source of joy and comfort. Making improvements in any area can have a positive effect on your overall well-being.
The Importance of Humor
One of the best ways to maintain a positive balance between stress in your world and your resources for coping is to have a good sense of humor.3 With humor, you can keep difficult situations in perspective, and you can take yourself lightly while taking life seriously. This helps one maintain grace under pressure and helps on a physiological plane as well. Abraham Lincoln once said, “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh, I should die.”
You simply cannot be distressed while you are laughing. A lively sense of humor and a good laugh a few times a day put a healthy distance between you and life’s problems. Remember, “Laughter is like jelly—when you spread it around, you can’t help getting some on yourself.” The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche noted that the most acutely suffering animal on earth invented laughter as an antidote. The root of the word “humor” is umor, which means fluid, like water. Humor relieves tension; it keeps us fluid and flexible instead of rigid and breakable in the face of stress and change. Laughter has the effect of making fears manageable and fueling hope.4
It is important to note that a good sense of humor is constructive and involves laughing with others or at ourselves but never at the expense of another person, which is stressful and destructive. A role model at this was Yogi Berra, the famous baseball player and manager. His convoluted but memorable misuses of language were humorous, healthful, and wise all
at the same time.
“Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical.”
“If you can’t imitate him, copy him.”
“Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t come to yours.”
“If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
In his influential book Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins, author of over a dozen books and hundreds of essays and editorials, describes the value of humor in healing. Told that all medical avenues had been exhausted in the treatment of a debilitating connective tissue disease, Cousins developed his own technique for healing. With his doctor’s support, he checked out of the hospital and began watching old TV comedies—I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, and others. He said that he substituted laughter for depression. “Ten minutes of good laughter gave me at least 2 hours of pain-free sleep…The more I laughed, the better I got.” In time, his fever and pain diminished and the disease itself dissipated.5
Cousins discovered that humor, cheerfulness, and other positive emotions can have a dramatic therapeutic value. Along these lines and predating Cousins, Mark Twain noted the importance of humor in promoting health.
“The old man laughed loud and joyously, shook up the details of his anatomy from head to foot, and ended by saying such a laugh was money in a man’s pocket because it cut down the doctor’s bills like anything.”6
In today’s medical world, the importance of humor is well known. Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams preaches laughter and closeness to help patients get well. Testimonials and anecdotal accounts are supported by research data. Healing, in fact, can be aided by the simple act of smiling. Scientists have identified a physical connection between the nerves of the facial muscles and a specific area of the brain that is capable of releasing health enhancing chemicals. Humor is a form of communicating on a high level of complexity that produces a positive response on a physiological level.7
Read the following story and notice the feeling of well-being you experience when you smile and laugh.
A letter written in a childish scrawl came to the post office addressed to “God.” An employee, not knowing what to do with the letter, opened it and read, “Dear God, my name is Jimmy. I am 6 years old. My father is gone, and my mother is having a hard time raising me and my sister. Would you please send us $500?”
The postal employee was touched. He showed the letter to his fellow workers, and all decided to kick in a few dollars each and send it to the family. They were able to raise $300.
A couple of weeks later, they received a second letter. The boy thanked God but ended with this request: “Next time would you please deliver the money directly to our home? If you send it through the post office, they deduct $200.”8
Humor can take a variety of forms, including surprise, exaggeration, absurdity, incongruity, word play, or tragic twists. In all of its forms, a sense of humor can be an excellent stress-coping technique, a release for tension, and a survival mechanism.9
Ask yourself, “If I were to become ill, would I turn to humor to help make me well?” What form of humor would you use? Have you ever personally experienced the positive effects of humor?
Last Word If you don’t think every day is a good one, try missing one—Will Rogers
Who’s on top—the world or you? Are your resources for coping keeping up with the demands you face?
Do you use humor as a stress-coping technique to enhance your life?
Are you aging at the rate you want and for the purposes you want?
Related Reading The Stress of Life by Hans Selye: Understanding stress and its effects.
How We Die by Sherwin Nuland: A compassionate reflection on life’s final chapter.
Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient by Norman Cousins: Reflections on healing and regeneration.
Related Videos Norman Cousins: 10 minutes of laughter = 2h pain-free sleep
DeLognis, A., et al. (2005). Coping in context. Journal of Personality, 73(6), 1633-1656.
Selye, H. (1976). The stress of life (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Wanzer, M., et al. (2009). Humorous communication within the lives of older adults. Health Communication, 24(2), 128-136; Miller,M. &Fry,W. (2009). The effect of mirthful laughter on the human cardiovascular system. Medical Hypotheses, 73(5), 636-639; and Hassad, C. Humor in medicine. Australian Family Physicians, 30(1), 25-28.
Metcalf, C. & Felible, R. (1992). Lighten Up. New York, NY: Perseus Books Group.
Cousins, N. (1991). Head First: The Biology of Hope. New York, NY: Dutton.
Twain, M. (1936). The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. New York, NY: Heritage Reprints.
Eliot, R.S. (1994). Stress to Strength. New York, NY: Bantam Books; and Vergeer, G. (1995). Therapeutic applications of humor. Directions in Mental Health Counseling, 5(3), 4-11.
Gregory, M. (Ed.). Bits and Pieces. Fairfield, NJ: The Economic Press, Inc.
Salovey, P., A.J., Detweiler, J.B., & Steward, W.T. (2000). Emotional states and physical health. American Psychologist, 55, 110-121; Lefcourt, H.M., Davidson-Katz, K., & Kueneman, K. (1990). Humor and immune system functioning. Humor, 3, 305-321; and Lefcourt, H.M., Davidson-Katz, K., Prkachin, K.M., & Mills, D.E. (1997). Humor as a stress moderator in the prediction of blood pressure obtained during five stressful tasks. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 523-542.
George Manning, Author and Editor Professor of Psychology and Business at Northern Kentucky University LinkedIn
Jennifer Zimmerman, Author and Editor
Freelance editor, writer, and consultant