The Mindful Officer: Being a healthy cop IS a laughing matter

September 16, 2019

Some of the best stretches of my career included two things; productivity and lots of laughter. There are nights I can actually recall being sore from laughing so much. Whether it was with a partner while spending long hours working highway interdiction on the night shift or with team members from a patrol shift or after conducting a covert operation that ended well. These are also the times I remember my co-workers feeling more like family members. The laughter and the comradery always seemed to accompany productivity and an overall pleasant, healthy work environment. This is no coincidence as the two just naturally encourage each other.

Has this changed for you or your department over the last several years? Are officers laughing less? This has been my personal observation, but how much of that is just me being old and crotchety? Or is it true…the result of a generational factor or difference? What role does administration play in creating an environment that allows for laughter? Are they getting in the way of levity?

These are questions you may want to discuss with co-workers or your subordinates because we can all be a part of what makes work a miserable place or we can help make the department a place with a healthy sense of humor. This is surely not something that gets brought up in staff meetings, but perhaps it should?

To be clear, we must know when laughter is appropriate and when it is not — particularly when it comes to public perception. But on that note, humor should be a regular tool used to improve our relationships with our community. There doesn’t seem to be much laughter going on anywhere on both sides these days.

Laughter should not be eliminated from our mission statements. It provides:

1. General relaxation and stress relief. From a mindful or meditation practice standpoint laughter affects your health in many of the same ways deep belly breathing does. It forces you to breathe deeply and in turn relieves lots of physical tension and stress. Studies have shown that several minutes of laughter can leave you in a more relaxed state, physically and mentally, for as long as 45 minutes. Laughter also produces endorphins which chemically give us a general sense of well-being and may even help with minor pain relief.

2. A boost to your immune system. Regular laughter can reduce the production of stress hormones like Cortisol and activate immune cells and even antibodies for fighting infection while you are fighting crime. In other words, it can help us save sick time in the long run.

3. Improved cardiovascular health. Laughter improves the function of blood vessels and can increase blood flow and improve oxygenation to muscles, including the heart, which can lower blood pressure and decrease your chances of a heart attack, which we are statistically famous for. Laughter can also burn calories. Clearly, this shouldn’t replace regular cardio, but it can be helpful.

4. A counter to anger. Sharing a laugh can dissolve the dangerous edge of anger. Being able to find humor, even in difficult situations, can mend conflicts, reduce animosity and defuse aggression.

5. A way to prolong your life. A Norwegian study discovered that people who cultivated stronger senses of humor lived longer than those who didn’t. This included people who were fighting cancer but maintained a good sense of humor amid their dangerously challenging situation.

Laughter is good for relationships

It’s commonly known that extremely stressful situations, including combat, very often forge strong relationships. Someone you have literally fought for your life with is usually someone who you develop an unbreakable bond with. The same can be said about laughter. Strong relationships can be developed and strengthened through shared laughter. You can often get a warm feeling or even laugh out loud when thinking about these relationships, which were spawned in laughter instead of fear.

Humor can be a powerful way to heal resentment, dissolve grudges, and take the edge off old disagreements. It’s a universal language. You don’t have to communicate verbally with a person who is laughing to understand a light-hearted moment and share a strong, positive connection. It unites people and crosses barriers of language and culture. If there is one place on earth that could use some laughter and unity right now, it’s the good ‘ole USA. I mean “united” IS supposed to be right there in the capital “U,” right?

I really believe that the amount of laughter you have going on in your agency should be talked about, even if you’ve had a rough couple of years. Folks who laugh together tend to develop trust because you’re sharing deeply felt, honest emotions from the heart. Perhaps that’s another reason laughter is liberating. It gets us out of our heads. As police officers, and particularly men, we tend to stay in our thinking minds. This is a problem for many of us and perhaps we get too good at it. Perhaps we’re addicted to thinking. Thinking is obviously practical, necessary and useful, but too much of it can be unhealthy. Laughter can help us break the cycles of thinking too much.

Laughter may be one of the key things missing from life in your agency. I often feel it’s missing from mine. As Dwight D. Eisenhower wisely said, “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.”

Keep that in mind.

For more practical tips on living healthy – both physically and mentally – as a cop be sure to check out Calibre Press’ popular book, Mindful Responder, by Crawford Coates.

“I was, to put it mildly, skeptical about mindfulness and meditation – until I read this book,” says Calibre co-owner & Director of Curriculum Jim Glennon. “Coates knows first responders and speaks to the challenges of this work in a language that grabbed me from the get-go. Essential reading that’s going to a lot of first responders a lot of good.”


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