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How Humor Can Be Used by Therapists to Improve Outcomes

The idea that humor can be used by therapists to improve outcomes is not that far-fetched in the minds of many professionals. Humor is a gateway for so many individuals that are struggling with their mental health to find relief. Whether it be watching a funny video, hearing a good joke, or laughing with friends, humor feels like medicine to a wealth of individuals across all backgrounds and cultures. 

The difference between making a friend laugh versus making a client laugh is something that therapists need to consider. There is a professional line that must be respected and boundaries that must be adhered to in order to maintain a healthy client-therapist relationship. Humor can be used to improve outcomes, but therapists must use it responsibly in the clinical setting. 


The History of Humor in Therapy:

As it turns out, physicians have been utilizing and advocating for the beneficial characteristics of humor for centuries. Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato along with the more recent Kant and Darwin have weighed the important role of humor in everyone’s lives throughout time. Ancient mythos has explored what it means to have laughter and humor in one’s life through stories and grandeur. 

The actual scientific study of how humor benefits client outcomes in the therapeutic setting is still incredibly young. Early research behind the benefits of humor hinged on the idea that laughter is a necessary adaptation for how humans communicate in the social setting. CBS sound engineer, Charley Douglass, was the pioneer for the “laugh tracks” that so many TV stations use today to make their at-home audience feel more socially comfortable in such an artificial setting. 

Modern research explores the impact of laughter and humor on an individual’s physiological and psychological processes in other settings. The idea that therapists can use humor to help their clients feel more comfortable, safe, and secure is relatively recent. A study completed by the University of California, San Diego explored the differentiation in laughter across social hierarchies and found that laughter can be used to gauge safety in certain settings. 

So how does this apply to the modern mental health provider? The idea that laughter can humor can be used by therapists to communicate safety, comfort, or security is an exciting and reassuring concept. 

How Humor Can Impact Client Outcomes:

1. Foster Safety 

Making sure your clients feel safe in the therapeutic setting is vital to their progress. The use of humor by therapists can create a safety net in the sense that it helps clients relax their nerves or anxiety and open up about the details impacting their life and mental health. Laughter is a powerful tool for empowering clients and letting them know that their therapist is a safe individual. 

2. Narrow the Power Divide 

As the study mentioned earlier suggests, laughter can convey the power dynamic that exists between any two individuals. The same study that found that laughter can convey safety also found that laughter can convey class and power dynamics. The responsible use of humor on behalf of therapists can communicate to a client that you do not hold power over them and can reinforce the idea that you are a safe person to talk to. 

3. Alleviate Stress, Depression, and Anxiety 

Laughter can feel like medicine to some people. It is the reason that so many people with mental health struggles lean on humor as a coping technique in their day-to-day life. Humor can feel like an escape or a relief from the things that feel heavy on our minds. Therapists that use humor responsibly can help alleviate some of that heaviness as their clients navigate their mental health. 


How to Responsibly Use Humor with a Client

1. Assess the Role of Humor in the Client’s Life

Not every client leans on humor to the same degree, if at all. In order to determine how you should apply humor in the clinical setting, you have to first assess your client’s needs. Any therapist using humor needs to use it on a client-by-client basis. This can be done by “testing the waters” or assessing how they respond to humor through trial and error and then adjust accordingly. Therapists should also pay attention to how the client uses humor. If the client is initiating humor on a frequent basis, then it could be an important tool. 

2. Avoid Self-Deprecation or Client-Deprecation 

This may seem obvious, but it is important. Too often, those who have a negative view of themselves will try and make light of that fact through humor. It is vital that this is never projected onto the client. Humor should never come at the expense of one’s self or the expense of others. Doing so can damage the client-provider relationship in a detrimental way. 

3. Echo the Client 

While every individual has their own style of humor, the therapist needs to leave their personal style out of each session. It is important that the client feel safe and like they can be themselves. Therapists should echo the tone of the client when using humor or respect when they are not in the mood or place to receive humor. 


As scientists continue to explore the impact of humor in the therapeutic setting, evidence-based interventions will emerge. Until then, the responsible use of humor in the therapy setting can foster safety and trust in the client-therapist relationship. 


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