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Humor in Therapy: Using It Effectively and Responsibly

Clinical Update
By Zur Institute

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When I thought about the long list of health benefits associated with humor and found out there are over 100 theories on humor and almost as many types of humor, I realized that humor is no laughing matter. I was also fascinated to discover that there is no agreement about what humor is, in the first place. If one tells a joke well and no one laughs, does it count as humor? If one laughs at a mundane joke after inhaling nitrous oxide or while nervous, is the joke made funny by the reaction? And there is the ultimate question: Does God have a sense of humor?

"Doctor, I have a ringing in my ears." "Don't answer!" - Henny Youngman

Realizing that none of us have been offered a graduate course on the Clinical Application of Humor, I asked Jim Lyttle, Ph.D., MBA, who is a serious humor researcher, professor at Long Island University and an active member of the International Society for Humor Studies, to tackle the question of whether a laugh a day, indeed, keeps the doctor away.



Following are some serious facts about Humor Therapy:

  • Researchers say children laugh about 300 times a day, adults perhaps 15 times a day.
  • The sound of roaring laughter is far more contagious than any cough, sniffle or sneeze. Humor and laughter can cause a domino effect of joy and amusement.

Laughter is very powerful medicine. Some of the health benefits of humor and laughter include:

  • Fosters instant relaxation and lowers blood pressure
  • Boosts immune system.
  • Improves brain functioning and protects the heart.
  • When we laugh, natural killer cells, which destroy tumors and viruses, increase along with Gamma-interferon (a disease-fighting protein), T-cells (important for our immune system) and B-cells (which make disease-fighting antibodies).
  • Laughter increases oxygen in the blood, which also encourages healing.
  • "When you laugh, your mind, body, and spirit change" Mark Twain

Mental health benefits of humor and laughter include:

  • Reduces stress, depression, anxiety and fear.
  • Elevates mood.
  • Increases energy and can help us perform activities that we might otherwise avoid.
  • Can be a safe way to introduce ourselves to others.
  • Laughter, like a smile, is the shortest distance between two people. It makes people feel closer to each other.
  • When we experience humor, we talk more, make more eye contact with others, touch others, etc.
  • Marriages and relationships can tremendously benefit from humor and laughter.
  • When people laugh together, they feel bonded and can better go through hardship together.
  • A healthy sense of humor is related to being able to laugh at oneself and a way of accepting oneself.

Benefits of humor in therapy:

  • Enhances therapeutic alliance and increases trust between therapists and clients.
  • Helps clients feel good about themselves.
  • Helps clients gain perspective.
  • Humor can help clients' thought processes by helping them to get unstuck.
  • Helps clients cope with difficult situations, such as death and illness.
  • Helps clients accept themselves. ("The older you get, the tougher it is to lose weight, because by then your body and your fat are really good friends." - Bob Hope)
  • Activates the chemistry of the will to live and increases our capacity to fight disease.
  • Humor can be used diagnostically. Goethe said: "People show their characters in nothing more clearly than in what they think laughable." The kind of humor people use often shows the kind of people they are.
  • Laughter is cathartic.

Concerns with humor:

  • It can be hurtful, demeaning, sexist and racist and a way to dominate.
  • It can be self-depreciating in unhealthy ways.
  • Laughing with others is an icebreaker, however, laughing at others is an icemaker.

The 100 theories of humor can be sorted into three groups.

  1. Biological, psychoanalytic or relief theories that consider the function of humor. They explain why we laugh and what survival value humor has.
  2. Incongruity, surprise and configuration theories consider the stimuli for humor. They explain what makes funny things funny.
  3. Cognitive theories consider the response to humor. They explain how and why we find things funny.

Types of Humor

  • (partial list): Black humor, circular, connotation, context deviation, defeated expectation, denial, escape, exaggeration, expand metaphor, false reason, free association, hypocrisy, impossible, insight, irony, juxtaposition, logical fallacy, mimicry, name-calling, nonsense, paradox, personification, practical joke, projection, pun, reduce to absurd, reversal, riddle, ridicule, satire, self-deprecation, self-referential, simile, stereotype, trick and many others.

Resources on Humor in Therapy





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