Frequently Asked Questions
Warning: Humor May be Dangerous to Your Illness
This website is dedicated to the Power and Practice of Positive Therapeutic Humor.
The Goal of this site is to Educate, Inform, and Help you network and locate resources. You will learn about Humor and its relation to Health and Healing.
The answer to the question "What is Humor" is not a simple one.
First, humor is the experience of incongruity. In ones environment the incongruity may be experienced when someone falls down in a situation when they are not expected to fall down, or the incongruity can be between concepts, thoughts, or ideas often illustrated by the punch line of a joke or the caption of a cartoon.
Second, as James Thurber has stated, "Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility." We commonly say, "It wasnt funny at the time." Later with distance we can appreciate the humor. This occurs frequently when people are experiencing a crisis, and at some later time the crisis situation is perceived as humorous.
Third, humor can be experienced in the joy of "getting" it. Humor can be the understanding of something that we at first did not comprehend. This occurs everyday in misunderstandings at which we laugh.
Fourth, the experience of the "forbidden" (laughing in church), or "getting away with" something (often seen with children) is often experienced as humorous..
Finally, for me, humor is comprised of three components: wit, mirth, and laughter. Wit is the cognitive experience, mirth the emotional experience, and laughter the physiological experience. We often equate laughter with humor, but you do not need to laugh to experience humor.
The more important question instead of "What IS humorous?" is the question "What do You EXPERIENCE as humorous." As individuals we tend to experience humor by either "getting it" (which tends to be cognitive or intellectual response), by feeling it (which tends to be an emotional response), or by laughing at it (which is more of a physiological response). There is a wide range of life's experiences that are experienced as humorous. Like beauty being in the eyes of the beholder, humor is in the funny bone of the receiver of the experience.
Can one increase one's sense of humor?
According to the Comedian Steve Allen, we can indeed increase our sense of humor. We can do so by exposing ourselves to those parts of life that we experience as humorous. For example we can increase our exposure to comics, sitcoms, joke books, comedy clubs, etc. We can also look for the humor around us as we attempt to expand our comic vision. We can do so by observing the world through the eyes of exaggeration and a broad silly perspective. I carry a clown nose with me and wear it in moments when I am trying to spread the humor. I also carry bubbles and other humorous props in my car so that I have them available for those moments when I want to be playful or lighten up.
How do I use humor more effectively?
For most people using humor effectively requires practice and planning so that one can utilize "Planned Spontaneity" which is the process of building one's humor repertoire so that it can be accessed when one wishes. Often I am told by workshop participants, "I can't tell a joke!" My reply is, "Of course you can, but you must prepare and practice just like you would to learn any skill. You had to learn and practice to drive a car. When you began, it felt clumsy and awkward, and today it is an integral part of your life." To use humor effectively requires planning such as collecting cartoons, one liners, jokes, anecdotes, etc. I keep an extensive humor log on my computer. I carry a small memo pad with me wherever I go, and when someone tells me a story or joke that I want to remember I write it down. If I do not write it down, I forget. I plan my humor by collecting jokes, stories, cartoons, etc. and I use the humor spontaneously as situations present themselves.
How do I know when to use humor with others?
The safest (interpersonally) times to use humor are:
1. When another person uses humor with you.
2. When you have a strong relationship with the other person.
3. When the situation is socially "appropriate. (Humor at a party and at a funeral may be experienced differently.)
4. When you use humor that is aimed at yourself (as opposed to humor aimed at another person.)
5. When you use humor to poke fun at a situation but not at another person or group of persons.
What is the difference between hurtful and healthful humor?
In general, healthful humor stimulates wit, mirth, or laughter. It creates closeness and intimacy. Hurtful humor creates pain and distance. Often healthful humor pokes fun at oneself and situations while harmful humor pokes fun at other individuals or groups. Sarcasm, put downs, ethnic jokes, and anti jokes (anti men, women, religious groups, nationalities, ethnicity, etc) are all considered hurtful as opposed to therapeutic. "Laughing with others is an ice breaker while laughing at others is an ice maker."
Where can I learn more about therapeutic humor?
Read the articles posted on this web site.
Join the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor.
Visit web sites of other therapeutic humor experts.
Attend humor conferences.
Read books on therapeutic humor.
Unfortunately, the research on therapeutic humor is very lacking and most of the research is actually on laughter and not humor. Laughter of course is a physiological response to humor.
Research has presented the following conclusions:
Laughter reduces serum cortical (a hormone released during the stress response).
Laughter increases imunoglobbin A (an antibody that helps fight upper respiratory disease).
Laughter increases tolerance to pain.
Laughter increases heart rate, pulse rate, and "juggles" the internal organs.
What does the research NOT say:
There is no research (to my knowledge) that indicates that Endorphins are secreted during laughter. It is a commonly held belief that endorphins are released, and proponents of the value of humor as well as, the media continue to cite this belief without any evidence as to its accuracy. (I am offering a $50 reward to the first person who shows me an original research study that indicates that endorphins are increased during laughter. The Tan and Berk studies show some difference between types of endorphins but do not show an overall increase.) This means that we do not yet know if endorphins are released during laughter.
There is also no research that indicates that humor heals illness. We may infer that humor is healing, but there is no direct evidence to support this belief. An inference that humor is healing can be drawn, for example, in the following way: A wealth of research has indicated that distressing emotions (depression, anger, anxiety, and stress) are all related to heart disease. Humor directly changes distressing emotions. Therefore Humor may reduce the risk of heart disease. (See Dr. Sultanoff's article on humor and heart disease published in the American Association for Therapeutic Humor Newsletter, November, 1998).
Visit Jester 2.0 you can participate in a UC Berkeley Research Study on Humor and read a collection of jokes. The jokes take about 5 minutes to read, and they will then offer you a list of jokes tailor made just for your taste.
Why is humor essential to an individual's mental health?
Humor is essential to mental health for several reasons. First, it assists us to connect with others. Our needs to affiliate with others is enhanced through humor.
Second, humor reduces stress by assisting us to view the world with perspective. Humor shifts the ways in which we think, and distress is greatly associated with the way we think. It is not situations that generate our stress, it is the meaning we place on the situations. Humor adjusts the meaning so that the event is not so powerful. Shakespeare has said, "Nothing is good or bad. It is thinking that makes it so."
Third, humor helps us by replacing distressing emotions with pleasurable feelings. As I wrote in one of my articles, "Humor and distressing emotions cannot occupy the same psychological space." You cannot feel angry, depressed, anxious, guilty, or resentful and experience humor at the same time. Most of us have experienced a time when we have been angry and someone, while in the throws of our being angry, does or says something humorous. A typical response is, "Dont make me laugh. I want to be angry." Intuitively we know that we cannot maintain distress and experience humor simultaneously.
Fourth, humor changes how we behave, when we experience humor we talk more, make more eye contact with others, touch others, etc. Humor increases energy, and with increased energy we may perform activities that we might otherwise avoid.
Fifth, humor changes our biochemical state by decreasing stress hormones and increasing infection fighting antibodies. It increases our attentiveness, heart rate, and pulse.
Finally, humor is good for mental health because it feels good!
How can a lack or a loss of sense of humor affect a patient's mental health?
Without humor ones thought processes are likely to become stuck and narrowly focused leading to increased distress. Since humor helps pull one out of emotional distress, the lack of humor would eliminate a healthy way for one to feel better. A lack of sense of humor is directly related to a lower self esteem. A healthy sense of humor is related to being able to laugh at oneself and ones life. Laughing at oneself can be a way of accepting and respecting oneself. (Note that laughing at oneself can also be unhealthy if one laughs as a way of self degradation.)
Can humor effectively assist in the treatment of mental illnesses?
Humor can teach others that they can manage their emotions. Since humor replaces emotional distress, an individual can use humor to reduce distress. An anxious individual can use humor to lower anxiety by visualizing a humorous situation to replace the view of an anxiety producing situation.
Humor can also teach perspective helping patients to see reality rather than the distortion that supports their distress. I frequently teach clients to manage their emotions by using humor to decrease distress.