By Mark Sanders, LCSW, CADC

When Norman Cousins suffered from a debilitating illness of his immune system, doctors predicted that he would not be alive very long. In physical pain every waking moment, Cousins checked himself out of the hospital, and prescribed comedy tapes as his medicine. Cousins discovered that for every 10 minutes he laughed, he had two hours of pain-free sleep. He lived 16 years longer than doctors predicted, and his story is chronicled in the book Anatomy of an Illness, which focuses on the therapeutic benefits of laughter.

According to Cousins:

  • Laughter releases endorphins in the brain that fight physical pain. This means that laughter is good for chemically dependent clients experiencing withdrawal.
  • Laughter protects our immune systems.
  • Laughter increases antibodies that fight infection.
  • Laughter increases natural killer cell activity. Natural killer cells attack cancerous cells in the body.
  • Laughter decreases stress.
  • Laughter activates neurochemicals in the brain, such as dopamine, and thus acts as an antidepressant.

The Therapeutic Benefits of Humor in Addiction Counseling

Laughter can also be utilized in addiction counseling to help reduce client resistance, increase rapport between counselor and client, and help facilitate recovery.

Some of the therapeutic benefits of humor in addiction counseling include:

  • Laughter is the great equalizer. Maya Angelou told Oprah Winfrey that only equals laugh with each other. Many chemically dependent clients enter counseling feeling that they have failed, which often leads to defensiveness. Laughter can be instrumental in decreasing that defensiveness.
  • Laughter can bring the idealized counselor back to life. It is particularly helpful for counselors to occasionally tell humorous stories about mistakes they have made in their own lives. This can help clients not be so guarded about their own life mistakes.
  • Laughter can decrease resistance to counseling. It has been said that the shortest distance between two people is a good laugh.
  • Laughter can decrease cross-cultural tension in counseling. It is hard to laugh and hate at the same time.
  • Laughter can facilitate bonding between counselors and clients.
  • Laughter can facilitate self-disclosure by creating a friendly environment.
  • Laughter can allow clients relief from painful experiences.
  • Laughter can decrease anxiety about taboo subjects.
  • Laughter can decrease stress and anxiety in counseling.
  • Laughter can make the therapeutic hour seem quicker. Many chemically dependent clients report a great deal of boredom in early recovery. Therapy is more enjoyable when it moves quickly.

How to Utilize Humor in Addiction Counseling

The primary purpose of humor is to help the client. Many counselors agree that the best humor by counselors is thoughtfully spontaneous, well-timed and takes who the client is into consideration. The goals should be to lessen tension, increase client comfort and/or help the client gain insight.

Approaches include:

  • Planned spontaneity. The counselor said something funny that he or she was not planning to say.
  • Exaggerations; making a situation seem bigger that it actually is. As clients see humor in this, they may begin to relax and put things in proper perspective.
  • Making fun of yourself
  • Repeating a funny line made by the client
  • Role play and skits
  • The use of humor tools — movie clips, cartoons, anecdotes, signs, prompts, etc.
  • The use of art
  • Taking the client’s “funny bone history,” by asking questions such as:

“What makes you laugh?”

“Do you like to hear jokes or tell jokes?”

“What kind of humor do you find unpleasant?”

“What kinds of things make other people laugh that are not funny to you?”

“What are the funniest movies you have ever seen?”

“Who are your favorite comedians?”

Five Types of Inappropriate Humor

While humor can be beneficial, it’s not always appropriate. There are types of humor that can be harmful to clients and should therefore be avoided. They include:

  • Laughing at clients
  • Cheap shots, i.e. making fun of political figures or celebrities the way late-night comedians do
  • Putting down clients
  • Sarcasm directed toward the client
  • Racist or sexist jokes

You may be wondering, “How do I become funnier as a therapist?” Cousins suggests listening to tapes of your favorite comics, watching comedies (with your friends or your cat), or spending time with your children or grandchildren (children laugh 400 times more frequently than adults). Abraham Maslow suggests that we should focus on striving for self-actualization. He indicates that individuals who move toward self-actualization take things and themselves less seriously, the end result being that we have a greater sense of humor.

Mark Sanders, LCSW, CADC, is an international speaker, trainer and consultant in the behavioral health field whose work has reached thousands throughout the United States, Europe, Canada, the Caribbean and British Isles. Mark is the author of five books focused on behavioral health. Recent titles include Slipping through the Cracks: Intervention Strategies for Clients With Multiple Addictions and Disorders, Recovery Management and Relationship Detox: Helping Clients Develop Healthy Relationships in Recovery. He has also had two stories published in the New York Times bestselling books series, Chicken Soup for the Soul.