A confession: I was a network situation comedy writer who decided to get my masters in psychology. I was making retribution for my sins.
It was a startling contrast going from studio lots where people worked at finding laughs to a profession where the mandatory operating equipment includes a box of Kleenex.
Since one of my key survival mechanisms in life is laughing, I asked my teachers if I could use humor with my clients. Their response: "Be very cautious." Only last year, the American Psychoanalytic Association held that humor was "inappropriate" to their mission, but lately, cracks in the wall have begun to appear. A recent article in the American Psychological Association Monitor described a "mirthful consultant" who helped psychologists brighten patients' lives using stuffed bears and scarf juggling. Other articles in magazines such as Humor and Health have shown that mirth can lower stress and help strengthen the immune system.
The diagnosis is that mirth is good for psychologists and their clients. Organizations have been formed, businesses incorporated and conventions held. I can hardly wait to see the scientific presentations: "The Effect of Groucho Marx Glasses on Depression" or "The Impact of Different-Size Whoopee Cushions in Clinical Settings." Can it be long before we are blessed with specialists called mirthologists?
Hopefully this new attitude will be reflected in graduate training programs. The only humor I recall was strictly unintentional. For example, one of my teachers was named Dr. Looney. She pronounced it loon-ay, but that just made it funnier. I envisioned her marrying a man named Tunes and becoming Dr. Loon-ay-Tunes.
Irony abounded. The man who ran the program wrote a textbook with touching humanistic tributes but barked at his students like a Marine Corps drill sergeant: "You're being insensitive! You keep acting like that and you're out of here!"
Sometimes I felt like I was in a situation comedy. As part of a class project, a test completed by my best friend in the program indicated she had lesbian tendencies. Should I tell her? What were the right words? "You're closed off at times and by the way--you might be gay." To my surprise, she said she'd never seriously considered it, but relationships with guys weren't going all that well. Last time we talked, she was living happily with another woman.
I understand that psychology has had to be somber to be taken seriously--getting people to pay to talk with you is not an easy sell. But it's time to stop acting like we're in a French movie where everybody is so serious you want to scream at the screen. I'm not suggesting that psychological training include classes in clowning and stand up comedy, but loosening up a little could help therapists and their clients. Therapy is a relationship, and enjoying a spontaneous humorous moment together can establish rapport and offer insights. Humor is idiosyncratic, a child of the moment we can all use more of in our lives. After all, how many clients have gone to a psychologist because they were laughing too much?
Adapted by Ph.D.
Steven Pritzker, Ph.D., is PT's humor editor. He has written for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Love Boat and Maude, and is co-editor of the new Encyclopedia of Creativity (Academic Press, 1999).