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"Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind."
- E.B. White

Humor is a word of German origin (Stimmung) that means "a series of painful emotions transformed in a manner that produces pleasure." (Buckman, 1980)

It goes without saying that it is much easier to think of examples of humor than to define it specifically. Obviously, humor is a subjective experience. Personality style, gender, culture, intelligence, and life experience are among the many variables that may determine what is considered funny.

Walton (2003), a humor researcher and children’s author, developed an extremely concise, yet inclusive definition of humor that may be helpful.

“Humor is surprise without threat or promise.”

Let us explain how this definition was derived. For those of you beginning to have uncontrollable flashbacks of English class, please proceed with caution – reading slowly, and taking necessary steps to ensure your self-care.

Surprises occur when something happens unexpectedly – something that would not be predicted. This is relative to what has happened to us in the past and what we have observed about this. After hearing a joke several times, it ceases to be surprising to you, but may remain surprising to those who haven’t heard it. So, what may surprise us is constantly changing.

Of course, surprise - in isolation - does not necessarily constitute humor. Someone hitting you on the head may surprise you, but it will not be funny. This is where the phrase “without threat” comes in. For therapy, the absence of a threat – or the ability of humor to turn a perceived threat into something not threatening – is one of the key ingredients that make humor useful.

What is threatening may not always be so clear. In using humor in therapy, in fact, it is important to gather information about whether something may be perceived as threatening based upon relationship, context, and personality variables. Humor works best when it takes something threatening and makes it safer, not when it takes something safe and makes it more threatening. It transforms and reshapes the meaning of a construct or an experience into something that orients towards playfulness and aware from danger. 

In certain instances, people may use humor in situations where they feel threatened or anxious. There is a component of humor that is designed to reduce even very real threats by searching out or making reference to a playful component of a situation.

As a concrete example, there are some accounts of people running down dozens of flights of stairs as the World Trade Center was collapsing. As they were struggling to maintain the strength to escape, one woman suggested they pretend they were counting down the New Year “10-9-8-7…” and so forth. This gave them a burst of needed adrenaline – drawn out by the use of laughter - to make it out of the building more quickly.

Lastly, let us expound upon the phrase “without promise” in this definition. Discovering several dollars in our jeans may be surprising and non-threatening, but certainly not hilarious. When the situation promises to solve a problem (e.g., gives you money to buy a soda) it will exclude the possibility for humor, in spite of the other positive feelings related to having your thirst quenched.

This quality makes reference to the playful, or almost frivolous, quality of humor. It accentuates that which is not real: neither real need, nor real hurt, nor real promise. Humor draws from a world inside us that is separate, a world of imagination where anything is possible, and where nothing needs to be necessarily considered either real or serious.

In this, humor links us to some of our earliest adaptive skills, drawing from our capacity for fantasy and play. Before our later adaptive skills take shape and allow us to formulate real solutions for real problems, our imagination protects us from the perceived or imagined dangers and challenges of a difficult world.

Children use their imagination to help manage the pace of facing challenges - and to contain their own emotional and psychological reactions to challenges - by sliding back and forth between reality and fantasy. If something is too hard to face, we "play" with it in our thoughts - and our imagination turns it into something less difficult and less threatening. We hold the full reality of it to one side until we are ready to face it.

The comfort accorded by the retreat to fantasy allows children to gradually approach and take on the reality in small, manageable pieces. Humor utilizes a similar psychological strategy, reshaping something real into something that is less threatening and more palatable.

This ties in to another concept of importance to therapy. Ronald Heifetz, a psychiatrist and specialist in change leadership, talks about the importance of managing the "holding environment" when people are going through periods of change. (Heifetz, 1994)

People cannot take on too much change without the threat of being overwhelmed by it. Leaders who are helping others to go through difficult adaptive changes – such as in therapy – have to keep an eye on the amount of change that is being faced at any point in time, using a variety of techniques to pace the flow of change so that it is manageable, while maintaining a supportive surrounding environment for the patient.

The holding environment is that supportive surrounding environment - like a home base or a safety net created by the supportive approaches of the therapist - to contain the patient's emotional and psychological reactions to the stresses of making changes. There are external supports that the therapist can use to manage the holding environment, but also internal strategies that can be taught to the patient.

It is probably not wise to teach adults to return to using fantasy to deal with real problems. However, humor aligns in an adaptive way with this bridge that exists between fantasy and reality, and allows us to use that same creativity to help in managing our holding environment.

This protective capacity of our creativity is one of the great strengths of humor and why humor is such a good tool for restructuring difficult cognitive and emotional constructs.

Some of the “universal” traits of humor – the unexpected and a sense of pleasant surprise, have already been discussed. We will focus our attention on the five other universal traits.

Humor exists in an incongruous fashion – where concepts or words that typically oppose each other are paired. Humor is the meeting point between the real world and the world of the imagination, and the pleasure in it – as well as the therapy in it – lies in the capacity to reconcile these incongruous elements. This is synonymous with the concept of the “oxymoron.” Absurdity based on the exaggerated or nonsensical is another characteristic.

Being startled - without being threatened - may also induce a humorous response. Equally important, experiencing the understanding of the joke or point may be a key factor – and is usually followed by the line “I get it!”

Perhaps most related to our purposes, humor is captured by the phrase emotional chaos remembered in tranquility,” coined by Thurber. Humor, shared especially among members of a similar group, is perhaps most poignant when this concept comes to life. Often, traumatic events and mistakes are appreciated and viewed from a lighter, fresher, yet still accurate perspective. (Sultanoff, 2002)

Humor may travel through several different routes. It consists of three different, but often interrelated elements – wit, mirth, and laughter. These have obvious implications in how the practitioner chooses to use humor. Wit consists of the series of unpredictable thoughts that we find stimulating. Mirth involves transformative emotional experience. We start with one emotion, then – through humor – we create an alternative view or perspective of it that transforms the emotion to something else. Laughter is the physiological expression.

While these three events often occur in isolation, the phenomenon is undoubtedly most pleasurable when it happens in rapid succession. (Sultanoff, 1994)

Why is That So Funny?

What do we find funny? Obviously, this differs from depending on the person, culture, age, and timing. There are, however, several theoretical models that have been developed to try to explain this.

One of the most extensive reviews and commentaries on the complexities of humor was compiled by Warren Shibles, professor of philosophy at University of Wisconsin Whitewater. This manuscript was entitled, "Humor Reference Guide: A Comprehensive Classification and Analysis" (1998) and it details numerous definitions, types, theories, and complexities about humor.

The author points out countless challenges, how objectifying the concept of humor is a difficult task. This is problematic in that many who have attempted to theorize about humor seem to view it as an offshoot of their own orientation. Many ways of conceptualizing humor appear inadequate because they are overly exclusive or vague. Shibles (1998) asks that we view each as an analogy for - versus an absolute explanation of - humor.

The following list summarizes many theories of humor that Shibles (1998) mentions, in addition to the ones we have already discussed. These could be further categorized into three major types of theories: ambivalence, biological (i.e., release and relief), and superiority.

- Physiological – multiple areas of the brain connect sequentially to produce laughter
- Arousal – an increase in adrenaline which is cognitively assessed as surprising or incongruous
- Learning – based on humor being a response to known or unknown stimuli
- Irrationality – a possible way of responding to what appears confusing or nonsensical
- Circular – humor as a serious of synonymous descriptions (e.g., Humor is funniness).
- Gestalt – humor is caused by a experiencing a shift in meaning that signifies and creates a greater emotional distance from an issue
- “Anti-Humor” – indicative of developmental immaturity, moral gluttony, disguised evil, or religious disrespect
- Aristotle’s – includes observations of the absurd in a colorful, enlightening, innocent way; excludes sarcasm and ridicule
- Freudian – caused by repressed negative emotions that are unconsciously triggered in the present and communicated as laughter
- Linguistic – using language to compare and contrast surprisingly similar or conflicting notions

In addition to noting different theories of humor, Shibles also notes 28 different kinds of humor, from Abstractionism humor to Values related humor.

Given the numerous different theories of humor, as well as the numerous different kinds of humor, it becomes difficult to narrow down a definition of humor in ways that make it easier to conceptualize. This is not to say that various people in the fields of psychology, philosophy, semantics and linguistics have not tried. As part of our comprehensive overview, we will present some of the better known views on humor.

In 1905, Freud proposed that humor, especially the absurd statement, has a “confusing and distracting” effect on patients which allowed for momentary shift in affect. This could provide a sense of hope to replace despair, serenity to replace anger, or confidence to replace insecurity. This could open the possibility for more frequent or involved intervention that might otherwise be resisted.

The release and relief theory proclaims that when intense emotional and intellectual material builds, one requires a physical outlet for pent-up emotions. Often, using humor on these occasions provides a needed cathartic experience. This theory is illustrated nicely when one often succumbs to laughter when afraid, anxious, or embarrassed.

Morreall, a philosopher, surmises that the first human laughter may have signaled shared relief at the passing of danger and a level of comfort with their company. This theory helps explain how humor may prepare people for more focused, realistic, and creative problem-solving or skill-building.

Freud (1905) also proposes a way “stupid and nonsensical humor” may be used in response to a patient’s irrational fears. For example, innocently suggesting a solution or idea that is more absurd than the patient’s original concern, may help the patient generate a sense of perspective in a non-judgmental fashion.

For clients who may be overly intellectualized or serious, therapist-initiated humor may facilitate regression for the patient to be able to access childhood feelings, playfulness, or creativity. (Eastman, 1936) Mindess (1971) describes this process in the social context as one of liberating the person from social norms or constraints when one’s superego is overactive. This may help the patient more fully integrate their beliefs and provide more complex coping mechanisms.

From a cognitive perspective, this can be viewed as tool for deconstructing rigid cognitive/emotional constructs – removing the tyranny of a single way of viewing something – so that an opening exists to examine that idea or construct from a different (and hopefully healthier) perspective. With the permission to be playful that is contained in the idea of humor, there is also permission to view things from multiple perspectives.

The element of surprise is “necessary but insufficient” for humor. This may lower a patient’s defense mechanisms enough to introduce challenging ideas that might be rejected if they were broached more directly. There is an element of cognitive distancing present in the use of humor, reducing the emotional impact of otherwise difficult situations or challenges.

The theory of incongruity describes humor as unexpected, unrelated, and contradictory ideas. Our anticipation is followed by a delivery of a cognitive twist, a sudden shift in emotional gears, and a change in our perception. This may entail noticing something hilarious and laughing in a serious situation such as a meeting or work or religious service, where it is considered “taboo” to laugh, and where one is “supposed” to be serious. Additionally the concept of irony is derived from this theory.

The contagion of laughter, according to cultural anthropologist Apte, may be related to the concept of social bonding, engaging someone in a shared experience, and thus avoiding being alienated from the group. Moreall asserts that people may laugh to consciously or unconsciously change their own mood or the emotional climate of a group. Thus, humor may serve to change others. Often, this is noticeable when speakers or leaders use planned humor to prompt redirection of our attention.

Ambivalence theory builds on this by describing humor as the product of seemingly incompatible or opposite emotions. Clearly, one would not logically associate the aforementioned feelings of fear, anxiety, or embarrassment with joy.

In 1956, Adler coined the phrase “social interest,” building on Freud by addressing the role of humor in the social environment. He delineated conjunctive and disjunctive emotions. As one might deduce, conjunctive emotions connect others while disjunctive ones tend to alienate. (Adler, 1927, in Fry and Salameh, 1993, 3) In therapy, Adler advocated for humor that was conjunctive.

Closely related to this concept is the “social corrective theory.” Bergson notes that humor can help us become more cohesive or distant with others, depending on our needs. When a person is not conscious of the needs or unable to communicate these needs directly, humor may provide this covert opportunity.

The theory of superiority describes humor as a way to recognize and highlight the temporary or permanent inferiority of others. This theory asserts that to find something as funny, we must perceive ourselves as emotionally distant and distinct from the target of the humor. Further, this prerequisite of sensing and expressing humor is that we see the object of the humor as “beneath” us. This theory would account for how we laugh “at” instead of “with” others. (Mindess, 1971; Ziv, 1984; Mindess and Turek, 1980)

Closely resembling this is the “pecking order theory,” where people use “slapstick” as a competitive venue and “practical joking” as a way to display power in making the other person appear “ludicrous”. (Frye, 1963) Humor can express anger through sarcasm and wit, and do this in ways that may be safer and more socially acceptable.

Other theories discuss the use of humor as a function of expressing creativity, reconnecting with childhood, or being freed from inhibition when doing so directly may not be deemed appropriate or safe. Mindess (1971) notes nine conditions that may evoke laughter through humor. The purpose of this humor is to help people seek refuge from inferiority, redundancy, conformity, seriousness, egotism, morality, reason, naïveté, and language.

Lyttle (2006) proposes the following series of questions that nicely integrates the three main humor theories; incongruity, superiority, release / relief theories. These are questions of “exclusion,” thus all “no” responses are required to consider the situation funny.

- Is the event routine?
- Is the event congruous?
- Is the event threatening?

Answering “yes” to these questions implies something would be “funnier,” according to release and relief theories.

- Does the event involve sex?
- Does the event involve aggression?

Ziv, in Personality and Sense of Humor (1984), encapsulates and delineates the uses of humor in psychotherapy and society in a practical and succinct way. He describes five functions of humor in different contexts of the personality. In these situations, individuals often derive satisfaction from both the creation of humor and appreciation of the outcome. (Buckman, 1994) These include:

Aggressive Function – Capturing and expressing rage in a less destructive and painful way, while socializing the act of expressing anger where it may not be tolerated otherwise

Social Function – Helping people connect to improve their status, form connections, distance themselves when needed, and introduce ideas that may be perceived as unacceptable

Sexual Function – Allowing people to communicate “libidinous” needs, wishes, and fantasies while reducing the sense of shame and threat

Intra and Inter-Psychic Function – Enabling people to ventilate intense or conflicting feelings and thoughts; either by defending against others or our own feelings (i.e., Defense Mechanism)

Intellectual Function – Giving people the opportunity to solve problems or expressing lofty ideas in an entertaining way, while helping escape the complexities of life

What’s Wrong? You’re Not Laughing?!

We will allocate an entire section later on in this course to highlight precautions of humor in various clinical situations. Most of us will be approaching humor in therapy from an eclectic standpoint, allowing it to complement and expand the breadth of our theoretical base. One of the sources of excitement lies in the ability to use humor in various theoretical contexts, from psychodynamic to more cognitive-behavioral work.

While it is easy to recognize how the above uses for humor are productive and meaningful, it is perhaps just as obvious to begin to note how they may be potentially destructive or divergent in the process.

Key Concept to Follow

Many therapists and researchers alike may point out times to avoid humor. For example, when humor serves to express the therapists’ intense feelings, compete with the client, or provide relief for the therapist in the session, it is deemed inappropriate.

Kubie (1971) is perhaps one of the only researchers who diametrically oppose the use of humor in all clinical situations. He asserts that humor is indulgent, selfish, and indirect on the part of the therapist and serves little purpose for the patient. Kubie is concerned that humor may cause the patient to become confused, angry, hurt, or placating. He worries that patients may “suffer in silence” with their reactions to therapist-initiated humor.

However, the underlying assumption is that humor is perhaps an unintended weapon rather than a skillful tool. Without conscious practice, education, and self-awareness, it can be ran that risk. However, in line with some recently advanced ideas about the importance of authenticity and use of the self in therapy, one also might argue that to deny humor, would be to deny a genuine and perhaps instinctual reaction to the world and oneself.

While most will agree in the possibility of these occurrences, the problems with humor are not viewed as universal. In contrast, Kunin is convinced that three traits of sanity include humor, hope, and humility. (Kunin, 1971) Many of these can be developed in our clients through the role modeling or trust-building in the therapeutic process.

The use of therapist-initiated humor in short-term psychotherapy may be especially helpful. This allows the clinician to broach difficult subjects more quickly and lessen client defenses, thereby bypassing strong defenses. (Schaengold, 1971) Since humor is a normal and healthy part of life, it may create a sense of emotional distance to completely avoid it in a therapeutic relationship.

Shaw (1961) states “Humor…is a mutual agreement to respect each other’s needs for defense.” In other words, we sometimes need to “save face” to acknowledge our feelings or experiences. He goes on further to say that this teaches a “reciprocal dignity,” resulting in the rise of self-esteem, awareness, and communication. (Buckman, 1994, 79) Humor provides both psychic space and energy to address difficult issues, while helping ease the client into them, and communicate the therapist’s recognition of their depth.

After completing Section III, participants will be able to answer the following questions:

How would you create a working definition of humor?

What are 5 significant developments in the history of humor in the helping professions?

How might you differentiate 3 main theories of beneficial humor?

What is a general precaution to prevent the misuse of humor in psychotherapy?

What would be included in the 5 functions of humor?