Do you remember the last bad joke you heard? What about how it made you feel? Chances are, some form of humor and/or laughter has helped you get through some tough times.
You may remember a humorous event precisely because it lifted you out of an emotionally dark place. There’s something about embracing the silly and bizarre moments in life that confirms our humanity, grounding each of us with ourselves and in our relationships. That’s not to say a sense of humor is a cure for life’s toils, but laughter certainly makes the bumpy times more comfortable.
Mental illness can intensify the challenges for any relationship, and I will address some ways the benefits of using humor and laughter can mitigate those struggles. First, I will examine what humor is and is not, then describe how it can be used in therapeutic environments, and finally list some ways to use humor that will benefit your relationships.
Over the millennia, some have theorized that humor involves relishing in others’ misfortunes, expressing elitism, or being released from social repression, while laughter is a behavior that results from an attempt to restore a sense of community (Sabato, 2019). Humor may help us relieve the tension between our innate sexual and aggressive impulses and society’s restraints on such behaviors—e.g., locker room talk (Baer, 2001).
In higher education, reflecting on related subjects of comedy and laughter can even foster complex thinking in undergraduates (Ciccone et al., 2008). Regardless of how they’re defined, we choose to use humor and laughter in ways that build up relationships with others or tear them down.
Humor and Laughter in Therapy
Humor and laughter used thoughtfully and respectfully can smooth out the therapeutic process. Experienced therapists have learned to introduce humorous remarks and/or laughter (with patients, not targeting them) carefully to help facilitate exposure therapy (Abramowitz et al., 2019). Gelkopf (2011) reports that while the use of humor and laughter as adjuncts to conventional individual and group psychotherapy has increased in recent decades, more empirical research is warranted to determine how humor and laughter can facilitate the treatment of serious mental illnesses.
Nonetheless, advocates for humor and laughter extol their ability to help relieve pain, mitigate stress, improve interpersonal actions, share personal stories, and promote positive attitudes during therapy (Culkin & Culkin, 2021; Gelkopf, 2011).
Using Humor to Benefit Relationships
Bringing a sense of humor to a relationship can foster physical and psychological benefits through laughter and a mature acceptance of your faults and “the absurdity of life” (Brown, 2001). Some have observed that a sense of humor can even promote spiritual survival and hope amidst suffering, even for short periods under extreme conditions such as internment in concentration camps (Frankl, 2006).
This healthy approach to humor—as opposed to denigrating your own or others’ dignity—in everyday life can broaden perspective, enhance creative thinking and communicative skills, and keep your mind open, all invaluable traits in fighting mental illness (Brown, 2001; Ciccone et al., 2008; Culkin & Culkin, 2021).
Below are some ways humor can benefit relationships, especially for those struggling with mental illness (see Brown, 2001; Culkin & Culkin, 2021):
What are some ways you can use humor and laughter to build up your relationships? How can they benefit you and your loved ones?
Abramowitz, J., Deacon, B., & Whiteside, S. (2019). Exposure Therapy for Anxiety: Principles and Practice (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press.
Baer, L. (2001). The Imp of the Mind: Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thoughts. Plume.
Brown, N. (2001). Children of the Self-absorbed. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Ciccone, A., Meyers, R., & Waldmann, S. (2008). What's So Funny? Moving Students Toward Complex Thinking in a Course on Comedy and Laughter. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 7(3), 308-322.
Culkin, D., & Culkin, M. (2021). OCD and Marriage: Pathways to Reshaping Your Lives Together. Specialty Press, Inc.
Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press.
Gelkopf M. (2011). The Use of Humor in Serious Mental Illness: A Review. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: eCAM, 342837. https://doi.org/10.1093/ecam/nep106
Sabato, G. (2019, June 26). What’s so Funny? The Science of Why We Laugh. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/whats-so-funny-the-science-of-why-we-laugh/