Dear Dr. Young,
The good news is I have heart disease . . .
These are the actual first words of an email message I sent to my primary care physician a couple of weeks ago. I had just undergone an angiogram to determine the source of an abnormality seen in my EKG reading during a prior exercise stress test and learned that my calcium score was 363, which, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center website, means, “You have heart disease and plaque may be blocking an artery.” Now, it so happens that I have no blockages. That’s likely because the same thing that caused the plaque buildups in my coronary arteries—decades of punishing my body with hardcore endurance training and racing—also blessed me with arteries the size of sewer pipes that can (at least for now) accommodate all that calcium. This silver lining is one reason I was in a mood to joke about my diagnosis.
But there’s a second reason, which is that I believe in the importance of joking about everything, including one’s own potential death by heart attack. If you know your Bible, you may be familiar a proverb that begins, “A merry heart does good like a medicine.” The phrase “merry heart” is sometimes also translated from the Hebrew as “laughter,” and it’s scientifically accurate. A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2016 reported that, within a population of 53,556 elderly people tracked over a 15-year period, women who recorded high scores for the cognitive component of sense of humor in a standardized questionnaire were significantly less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or infections, while men with similar scores were also less likely to die from infection.
Laughter has an instantaneous healthful effect on mood and physiological stress levels. But mirth is more than just a salutary state. As a psychological trait, a sense of humor is an effective way of coping with challenges. The 18th century German poet Novalis wrote, “After losing a war, one should write only comedies.” My response to this advice is, “Why wait until the war is lost?” Laughing amidst a losing battle will take some of the sting out of defeat and may even improve your chances of turning things around and winning.
In my latest book, The Comeback Quotient, I describe how humor helped me cope with serving a drafting penalty during Ironman Santa Rosa 2019 after having dealt poorly with the same situation at Ironman Wisconsin 17 years earlier:
In 2002, while serving my penalty, I argued with the referee who had flagged me for drafting until she threatened to disqualify me if I didn’t shut up. This time I cracked jokes with the two officials stationed at the penalty tent (“Dang, these are longer than church minutes!”), not only because I didn’t want to be disqualified but also because I knew they had an unpleasant job (thanks to athletes like the one I was 17 years ago), and I wanted to be a bright spot in what was surely otherwise a largely trying day for them. And also because I knew I would feel better and probably even finish the ride stronger if I kept my sense of humor. Before my five minutes were up, I peed myself, unaware that doing so was a violation of the rules punishable with a DQ. I got off with a warning, however, and I can’t help but think the officials’ leniency was a karmic reward for my having treated them like human beings.
See how that works? The lightheartedness that I carried into this triathlon, signaled by my quip in the penalty tent, enhanced my enjoyment of the overall race experience and very likely also aided my performance. And there are a million other situations where having a sense of humor can benefit an athlete in similar ways. Just recently an athlete I coach, we’ll call her Cindy, found herself struggling to perform hill sprints in tough winter conditions while wearing ice shoes. In the past, Cindy might have allowed her frustration to get the best of her, ruining the workout, but this time she didn’t.
“It was comical trying to pick up speed,” she reported to me afterward. “I think I worked harder for those six sprints than any I’ve done before. As difficult as it was, I know I got the intended benefit and oddly really enjoyed the challenge of doing something almost impossible. I laughed out loud during every recovery.”
In addition to supplying a terrific example of how maintaining a sense of humor can benefit an endurance athlete, Cindy is also living proof that a risible mindset can be cultivated over time. You don’t have to be Rodney Dangerfield to laugh at your own losing battles.
But wait: If discovering I have severe plaque buildup in my coronary arteries was the good news that I reported to my PCP, what was the bad news? It was, simply, that the new diagnosis offered no explanation for my chronic fatigue, brain fog, orthostatic intolerance, and other symptoms (of post-acute COVID-19 syndrome, I’m about certain) that caused me to seek medical care in the first place. So, in a sense, I went to the doctor with one ailment and came away with two. Which, now that I think about it, is itself kind of funny.