Humor in Therapy: Using It Effectively and Responsibly
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.
- Biological, psychoanalytic or relief theories that consider the function of humor. They explain why we laugh and what survival value humor has.
- Incongruity, surprise and configuration theories consider the stimuli for humor. They explain what makes funny things funny.
- 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