Benefits of Therapeutic Humour and a Happier Lifestyle
By: Quenell Redden
Benefits of Therapeutic Humour and a Happier Lifestyle
You might have heard of Audrey Hepburn’s famous saying, “Laughter is and always will be the best form of therapy.” Many people believe that laughter, in fact, can be a form of therapy, and there may be some validity to that. Philosophers and Psychologists from as early as Plato and Aristotle have attempted to understand the psychology of humour. Three core theories serve as the foundation to understanding humour; they are the relief theory, superiority theory, and incongruity theory. All three theories help us to understand humour and, more specifically, how humour, when used appropriately, can have many health benefits. Although we know there are some correlations between humour and healthier lifestyles, there is still much research that needs to be conducted and understood, providing more concrete evidence. Therefore, our knowledge of humour and even more so therapeutic humour is a field of psychology that is constantly expanding. Nevertheless, humour is an essential aspect of human existence and, if incorporated into our lives consistently, can have numerous health benefits.
Have you ever been in an intense situation, and one of the first things your body does is burst into laughter? Well, you are not the only one that experiences this type of somatic response to intense stimuli. Many philosophers and psychologists have tried to understand why our innate response to laugh occurs in certain extreme situations. The relief theory explains this behaviour as a build-up of tension that is released through nervous energy, which comes out as laughter (Conger, 2020). One renowned Psychologist that is accredited with expanding on this theory is Sigmund Freud. In his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, he describes humour as an outlet for human emotions that have accumulated over time (Freud, 1905). Freud further explains that this reaction can also occur when specific intense emotions are accumulated and then released at inappropriate times, which may go against societal norms (Freud, 1905). For example, laughing at a funeral may be inappropriate in some cultures to insight laughter while people may be mourning someone who has passed.
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Still, for an individual who is experiencing an overwhelming sense of grief, they may react by laughing, which others could deem as inappropriate. Physiologically, scientists believe that this release of energy is the release of nerves that reduces the state of an individual’s arousal from the stimulating circumstance (Berlyne, 1972). Furthermore, this response uses the respiratory and muscular systems to aid in the release of nervous energy (Martin & Ford, 2018). Commonly, this theory is compared to the function of a pressure valve. As the pressure in the valve builds up, it releases a fluid that relieves that pressure. This same logic is what many scientists believe happens in the human body only the response (relief of pressure) is laughter. So, the next time you are in an intense situation and all you can do is laugh, blame it on the relief theory.
A long-standing theory that aims to provide insight into the humour of psychology is known as the superiority theory. This theory was established by Philosophers Thomas Hobbes, Plato, and Aristotle and addressed the appeal of dark humour. The superiority theory states that individuals indulge and find pleasure in humour that elevates their self-esteem over others’ misfortune circumstances (Conger, 2020). In one of Hobbes’ teachings, he sums up this theory by stating, “the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly” (Conger, 2020). Essentially, what Hobbes, Plato, and Aristotle are theorizing, is that it is human nature to find amusement in situations that make us feel better about ourselves, even if it is at the expense of another. The superiority theory plays a significant role in understanding disparaging humour and how individuals can find humour in some of the most grotesque situations. We will explore this type of humour at another point in our literary journey.
The last of the three core theories explaining humour is known as the incongruity theory. Philosophers Immanuel Kant and Søren Kierkegaard theorized that humour arises when we encounter an unexpected outcome. Meaning that a punchline or situation is a lot more effective when the audience cannot predict the outcome or is caught off guard (Conger, 2020). Cognitively, it’s the perception and interpretation of incongruity that our minds pick up which makes the joke so funny. Incongruity theory is one of the strongest theories in understanding humour and is believed to be at the centre of all humour (Zhan, 2012, p. 95). Essentially, the incongruity theory speaks to comedy/jokes that lead to unexpected circumstances or behaviours. This should not be misunderstood as confusion. For the joke or situation to be funny, the audience must have enough understanding of what is occurring, and the outcome must go against what they were anticipating.
What is Therapeutic Humour?
Now that we have some knowledge of the theories that aim to understand the psychology of humour, what exactly is therapeutic humour? Therapeutic humour is the use of laughter, positive emotions, and positive behaviours as a form of therapy. Typically, humour therapy involves smiling and laughter as an outlet for managing high levels of stress or traumatic situations (Theravive, 2021). Therapeutic humour can vary depending on the therapist-client relationship. The reason for this is that humour can be a form of coping, but if done too often, it can have detrimental effects on the progress of addressing traumatic situations. Humour therapy must also be tailored to the age and humour style and can be given in the forms of books, films, games, and even person to person (Swaminath, 2006). While humour therapy is a positive practice for treating mental and physical illnesses, it must also be paired with the necessary medications in cases where patients require it (Swaminath, 2006). Overall, therapeutic humour, when implemented consistently and accurately, does show signs of improving quality of life, especially in terms of mental health.
Additionally, researchers have identified positive effects on physical health and humour therapy, such as reducing stress and permitting changes in the brain that promote healthy body healing (Theravivie, 2021).
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These are the specific goals that therapeutic humour aims to target but, at the same time, what society needs to understand further. Despite many correlations between humour and positive health benefits, there is little research to provide a clearer understanding of the function humour has on our health. However, as research and practice of therapeutic humour increases, we will be able to move towards a full picture understanding of how humour can improve and promote healthier lifestyles.
Medical Benefits of Humour
The use of therapeutic humour has been shown to aid in the reduction of low blood pressure, decrease stress, strengthen the immune system, increase positive mood, reduce pain, and release high amounts of dopamine. Laughter can have the ability to increase the function of blood vessels, which helps to increase blood flow and reduce the risk of heart attack or other cardiovascular diseases. By decreasing stress levels from laughter, the body can produce more immune cells and antibodies that help lower the risks of vulnerability to disease (Robinson, 2021).
More specifically, there is a study that focuses on the effects of humour therapy on older adults who experience chronic pain. Primarily, this study analyzed data from two nursing homes which consisted of an experimental and control group. Both groups were nursing homes with older adults who experienced chronic pain, but the experimental group was the only group that received humour therapy. This experiment was open to all consenting residents of the nursing homes who met the criteria of being “cognitively able” as according to the Abbreviated Mental Test Score (and having a score of greater than or equal to 8) and having experienced chronic pain (i.e., pain within the past three months before the experiment being conducted.) The experiment ran for 8 weeks, with the experimental group receiving one hour a week of humour therapy. The first week was used to help the participants in the experimental group collect videos, photos, jokes, clips, etc., of what they found to be funny. Throughout the remainder of the 8 weeks, the participants would be introduced to the various aspects of the humour they identified, with the incorporation of numerous laughing exercises. Both groups were assessed on pain, happiness, and loneliness with the use of empirical-based assessment surveys before and after the experiment. The data found that those who had received humour therapy had a decrease in chronic pain, as well as a decrease in loneliness and an increase in happiness. The participants with a reduction in chronic pain still felt pain but reported lower ratings compared to the control group. Thus, demonstrating that despite the negative impact of health from chronic pain, the use of humour therapy was able to initiate positive change cognitively to older adults in the experimental group and thereby increasing life satisfaction (Humor Therapy: Relieving Chronic Pain and Enhancing Happiness for Older Adults, 2010). This research study is one of the many more experiments needed to further our understanding of therapeutic humour. However, this information does provide significant evidence in the case that therapeutic humour does aid in improving quality of life.
Techniques of Therapeutic Humour
Therapeutic Humour is a unique type of therapy. One does not have to be a professional comedian to enact therapeutic humour, but it does require a level of understanding of how humour can influence a client’s situation. It requires that both therapist and client be aware of what material brings the client humour (e.x. movies, books, cartoons, pictures, etc.) and identifying the line between relief and avoidance. The techniques involved aim to increase positive emotions, and recipients of therapeutic humour must be involved in the therapy for specified durations as determined by the therapist (Mora-Ripoll R, 2013). Recipients may also be asked to follow daily laughter exercises like spontaneous laughter or smiling (Mora-Ripoll R, 2013). Essentially, therapeutic humour is a particular type of therapy that is tailored to the individual or group receiving this treatment option and maintains a strong focus on targeting positive emotions.
Laughter is Healthier
So, it seems that laughter is, in fact, the best medicine. Therapeutic humour, when given a chance, can provide a positive impact on physical and mental health. We may still have a long way to go in understanding humour and its psychological nature but what we do know reveals that humour is a significant necessity of our daily existence. Whether laughing is our sense of relief, source of heightened self-esteem, or the thrill of the unexpected, we all need a little laughter in our interactions. Make it a habit to find joy in what brings you amusement because humour is what makes life a little more worthwhile.
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Robinson, L. (2021, May 3). Laughter is the Best Medicine. HelpGuide.org.
Swaminath, G. (2006, July). ‘Joke’s A Part‘: In defence of humour. Indian journal of psychiatry.
Tse, M. M., Lo, A. P., Cheng, T. L., Chan, E. K., Chan, A. H., & Chung, H. S. (2010). Humour therapy: relieving chronic pain and enhancing happiness for older adults. Journal of aging research, 2010.
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