The Healing Power of Humour

Oscar Wilde once famously wrote that life was far too important to be taken seriously, whilst one of the most often used sayings ever is that laughter is the best medicine.


Studies have shown that laughter can have a positive effect on the immune system, blood pressure and cholesterol; that it can massage vital organs, aid digestion and release those happy hormones called endorphins.


A good bout of laughter has been likened to a 20-minute cardiovascular workout and has been shown to help people deal with a vast range of emotional problems including anxiety, stress, depression, confidence and self-esteem issues, guilt, obsessive thinking and more.


In India, they have laughter clubs, where people report a wide variety of positive effects from the use of repeated daily laughter.


There are even organizations, such as the American Association for Therapeutic Humour (AATH) and the International Society for Humour Studies (ISHS) that actively promote its healing power.


The notion of humour and its effects on our mental and physical health come to us from out of antiquity, and is even mentioned in The Bible, where it says, “a merry heart hath a cheerful countenance, but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” (Proverbs 17:22 King James version, if you really want to know).


However, Plato considered humour a form of malice, whilst the 15th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes called it hostile and aggressive.


That said, the Ancient Greeks thought that laughter made their crops grow and were famous for two types of drama: tragedy and comedy. The former provided catharsis whilst the latter provide relief.


Until the 19th century, the body was said to be composed of four basic substances or “humours”, namely (and somewhat disgustingly), blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm, that were responsible for your health and disposition.


A balance of these fluids made for good humour, whilst an imbalance made for bad. Black bile, for instance, was seen as the cause of black moods or depressions.


In psychology, one man who devoted a lot of thought to the subject of humour was Freud, who considered it a release from repression and regarded it as a form of healing.


Albert Ellis, who was the founder of a branch of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) known as Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), took this view a lot further.


Perhaps in a nod to Oscar Wilde, he believed that people disturbed themselves not just by taking themselves seriously, but by taking themselves too seriously.


To that end, Ellis used every kind of humour possible, including taking things to extremes, reducing them to absurdity, paradoxical intention, puns, rational songs, witticisms, irony, whimsy, evocative language, slang, swearing, obscenities and more.


Many therapists today believe that humour can help you laugh at your problems, accept yourself more readily, clarify self-defeating behaviours in a way that is non-threatening, offer insight, distance yourselves from your problems, interrupt dysfunctional thought processes, show you the fun, absurdity and enjoy-ability of life and even help relieve the monotony of therapy itself!


Over the years, there have been many, many advocates of its use and very few detractors. The question is, would you want your therapist to use it with you and, do you think it would help?


After all as the saying goes, “Laugh and the world laughs with you; but weep, and you weep alone.”



Daniel Fryer is a practising Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapist. He has an MSc in RECBT from Goldsmith’s College, University of London and runs private practices in Southwest London. He also works as a specialist for Medicentre and The Royal Brompton Hospital. He presented the use of humour in psychotherapy at this year’s Association for Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (AREBT) conference.


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