While traveling home from the American Pharmaceutics meeting, I stopped to think about how I made folks laugh during my presentation. Humor served to break the ice and make folks more relaxed, so the ongoing discussions were full and the participants felt safe and shared more than I thought possible in a short presentation.  

Thinking about the tough work my teammates and I do when helping families navigate with loved ones, I reflected how often we use humor to help break the ice and get a very serious group relaxed. Ensuring they are not hypervigilant nor are they in a flight or freeze mode. Rather they are able to share their feelings in a way that allows them to join with their loved one. Shayne is particularly good at bringing humor into the room to defuse stress — while often showing a video about learning to ride a bike backward — breaks up the tense molecules and sets the stage for change.

That being the case, I thought I might ask you how if at all you use humor in your work?

A Recent Study

In a study published in 2018, researchers looked at the role of humor in psychotherapy (Researchers Humor Associated With Positive Outcomes in Individual Psychotherapy.)

There has been some controversy concerning the value of humor in therapy.  Some reject humor as a valid psychotherapeutic tool because they believe that it stifles a client’s reactions and that a therapist might rely on humor to conceal their own anxiety, cover aggression toward clients, or even as a cover for inappropriate, seductive interaction.

Conversely, many others find humor beneficial in a therapeutic setting. Many authors have said that humor has the ability to help people see things in a new way. This can be helpful when someone is dealing with a problem. There is empirical evidence that shows people who possess a sense of humor tend to take a more active role in looking for a different perspective on things.

This different perspective, reframing,is a common therapeutic tool that has been used in many different types of psychotherapy. There are several ways that humor can be used in therapy, including connecting the client’s favorite joke to the problem they are currently facing, or using humor as a metaphor for their current situation.

Laughter is Complex

In an enlightening article, Humor in Therapy: Using It Effectively and Responsibly, I found a lot of great information that can be a great guide for using humor in our practices. Here is a preview of the kinds of things you can glean from the article: 

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.

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.

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.

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. T
  • hey 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, 

Read all of the points here.

So then, how do you shake up the molecules with humor? Let me know and I will add to another blog.