THE THERAPEUTIC BENEFITS OF HUMOR & LAUGHTER by Kelley J. Brower

    Although no match for Wellbutrin, there are more and more scientific studies and mental health clinicians that suggest laughter and humor, have positive psychological benefits.  Although Freud’s book Jokes and Their Relations the Unconscious (1905) was no doubt a masterpiece, he didn’t have much to say about the use of humor in the therapeutic setting, thus, for years the psychoanalytic community has kept the lid on humor at the office. But lately more and more therapists are considering the use of humor as a therapeutic technique. American psychologist Jean Sanville, known for her enchanting book “The Playground for Psychoanalytic Therapy” posits that a humorous perspective prevents “ideological rigidity,” Psychoanalysis and professor of Psychology at UCLA’s School of Medicine, James Grostein also believes in the curative benefit of humor in therapy in that it fosters the capacity to shift perspectives. Psychology professor Dr. Allen Cornelius at the University of the Rockies contends that humor may be able to tweak negative perceptions in a more positive direction. He even suggests that humor has potential to open patients up to those ever-so-allusive “Aha” moments.  

            Additional research also suggests that a “humorous perspective” can be a healthy coping strategy in that the ability to maintain a humorous outlook during stressful situations keeps one from becoming overwhelmed or all consumed by negative thinking. Not to mention, humor can also be linked to positive emotional states such as: joy, hope, love, contentment, and dare we even say happiness?  Some even suggest that Humor can even help improve maladaptive communication styles.

            I  myself have a huge background in comedy therefore and am also a huge pro-humor-as-a-therapeutic-technique kind of clinician.  With over 20 years experience working in the professional comedy trenches in both Los Angeles and New York, I have a good-sized bag of tools for me to draw on particularly when working with couples, and almost always include some comedy improv exercises in my group work.

            Although humor can provide some great benefits to the light-hearted clinician, Dr Cornelieus warns that humor in therapy must be used cautiously, and judiciously and that certain styles may be more adaptive and therapeutic than others. Sarcasm and cynicism, for example, are forms of humor that may interfere with the therapeutic process as they can serve as mechanisms avoidance, denial or defensiveness. Whereas the gentler forms of humor may inspire perspective taking and/or self-accepting styles of self-deprecation.  So all you patients out there beware of the sarcastic shrinks and all you therapists - choose your humor style wisely!

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