The Power of Laughter in Therapy
Laughter and therapy are not generally paired in the minds of clinicians nor in the minds of the general public. Therapy is a serious business and is viewed and approached with a proper amount of ponderous gravity. After all, people enter therapy for serious reasons, often at critical times in their lives. How, then, can laughter be a vital part of the therapy process when the subject matter is so serious?
Laughter, a birthright of all human beings, is actually misunderstood and undervalued as a healing, cathartic process. Heavily identified with humor, laughter is generally deemed appropriate only for lighter, more frivolous concerns and things that are funny.
Certainly humor is one trigger for laughter but not the only one. If one entertains the idea that laughter is a physical process which releases emotional pain, then other, more serious triggers like stress, anxiety, and tension will make sense. According to psychologist William James, “We don’t laugh because we’re happy. We’re happy because we laugh.” If we put laughter into a pain framework, all kinds of laughter in all kinds of painful situations begin to make sense.
Cathartic psychotherapy emphasizes and utilizes laughter as one of the major cathartic processes healing emotional pain. It is specific to the release of light anger, light fear, and boredom. When people laugh, if uncomplicated by medications which may interfere with the physical catharsis, they are releasing painful feeling which is gone for all time. The exact amount of pain is immeasurable but the body will keep discharging pain cathartically until there is no longer a need. The only thwarting influences are the controls artfully imposed in childhood. Human beings are taught the value of control from an early age. The loss of control cathartically through laughter, crying, or anger makes us uncomfortable to say the least. What we don’t realize is that when we lose control of our feelings cathartically, we actually gain “control of our lives in flexible, intelligent, creative, and caring ways.” (Goodheart, 1994, p. 36)
Our cultural preference for processing feelings cognitively instead of feeling them in our bodies tends to maintain and prolong emotional distress. Nevertheless, some part of us instinctively knows that pain is driving us unconsciously. This may be viewed as the innate drive toward health which carries us toward the help we need. Clients from families where feelings are not allowed, may have squelched their ability to laugh, cry, and get angry. As clinicians, we can offer assistance in regaining these cathartic processes. This will enable our clients to release emotions deeply held which may be thwarting their happiness.
Only now has research begun to validate the belief that emotions are stored in the body, not the mind. Cathartic techniques allow clinicians to help clients access their stored emotions and release them. The more catharsis the client experiences, the faster he moves through the healing process. Laughter, which is possibly the most powerful cathartic process and the least threatening in many respects, leads the way in easing controls on emotion and often opens the door to crying and deep anger.
What causes the mental health community to be so slow in accepting laughter as a healing tool? It’s not comfortable. “Like any expression of the true self, laughter is radical and revolutionary, and it upsets conformity.” (Steinem, 1992, p. 175) In order to offer clients the power of laughter, clinicians must be willing to break loose from traditional therapeutic constraints, regain their own laughter, and learn the techniques to facilitate laughter in their clients.
The fact that laughter is often viewed with suspicion in adulthood as silly, inappropriate, and trivializing must be challenged by clinicians. Otherwise clients will turn away from the healing power of their laughter, fearful that others will see them as minimizing both themselves and their problems. Only the irrepressible few will laugh, hurling conventional behavior to the winds.
Traditionally, mental health practitioners have viewed laughter as hiding painful emotion. In contrast, cathartic psychotherapy believes that laughter is releasing emotion. It is the physical process which powers out certain kinds of pain. Psychiatrist Raymond Moody believes that through laughter, people’s feelings and emotions erupt from inside them into the outside world. (Moody,1978, p. 10) Therefore, if one curtails or quenches laughter as inappropriate, the release of pain is quenched as well.If people deny their emotions, they tend to become increasingly rigid and less able to change their patterns of behavior. They become more re-active than active and tend to repeat behaviors that are increasingly unsuccessful. If, however, they are able to release their feelings cathartically, they will automatically rethink situations. The clearer thinking made possible by catharsis enables them to take sensible, more appropriate action. (Goodheart,1994, p.97)
The laughter catharsis does not change the facts, but it does change the way one relates to the facts. It allows a person to see things from a bird’s-eye view where horrendous misfortune seems much more bearable. This allows people to remember, to feel, and to explore without fearing that they will be trapped by circumstances beyond their control. Life’s most tragic and bizarre occurrences contain things which may strike one as personally absurd if one is able to look for them and the absurd is often a trigger point for laughter. Underneath the layers of unresolved pain, there is the child who possesses a strong biological drive toward joy and with the capacity for it, even with the capacity to generate it for itself. (Montagu, 1989, p.153) All that prevents a person from being joyful once again is the release of the pain layered on top. Laughter provides that release in a pleasurable way. It peels away the pain, allowing one to feel the joy beneath.
Emotionally, laughter takes care of several painful feelings. It releases fear which is often the root cause of emotional distress. Created biologically to protect humans from danger, it only becomes a liability if not heeded and released. This is sometimes complicated today because our fears are subtle and not always easy to identify. Much fear masquerades as stress.
When paired with trembling which releases deep fear, laughter takes care of anxiety which untended, often becomes disabling panic attacks or all consuming phobias. The frame of mind created by laughter is one of safety and clear thinking. It allows one to reframe a specific threat or stress, so that it becomes less overwhelming. As people laugh at things which threaten their safety and well-being, they release their anxiety and their discomfort decreases. For example, many people who are faced with life threatening illness find that laughter enables them to face the possibility of death directly while still enjoying and even enhancing the quality of their lives. When their fear is released by laughter, they relate more fully, think more clearly, and bond more with others.
In addition to fear, laughter releases light anger. It also works to release deeper anger indirectly. It does so by allowing one to shed the lighter aspects of fear and anger which can then open access to deep rage. Laughter is often a more acceptable way to approach one’s angry feelings. So much anger has been repressed by fear, that laughter actually serves the dual purpose of first releasing the fear of anger and then the anger itself.
Anger, which is the emotional response to the invasion of one’s boundaries, is not allowed in many families. When childhood boundaries are ignored, and instinctive angry responses are not permitted by adults, they must be redirected or repressed by the child. The lesson learned is that anger is unacceptable. To access their anger, many clients must overcome the defenses of their own childhood. Laughter allows this. With encouragement by a therapist, a client might be able to say “I feel angry” with a smile, the incongruity of which allows him to laugh. For many clients, laughter is a much more gentle way to address anger. It is less threatening than a direct expression of anger.
Finally, laughter releases boredom, the emotion related to changing the amount of stimulus in our environment. Boredom ranges from the simple type which is acutely distressing until the cause is removed, to hyperboredom which is comparable to an agonizing, chronically painful disease which in some cases ends in death. (Healy, 1984, p. 28) When we have too much or too little of something, we get bored, and we to take action. Failing that, we need to laugh. Boredom is a numbing, demoralizing emotion, undermining one’s sense of purpose.
Clinicians may facilitate their clients’ laughter by helping them play with their pain. According to Max Eastman, “…We come into the world endowed with an instinctive tendency to laugh and have this feeling in response to pains presented playfully. (Eastman, 1937, p. 45) Psychologist Annette Goodheart presents this concept as a formula—Pain + Play = Laughter. (Goodheart, 1994) Although laughter is often triggered by things that are funny, it is not about “funny.” Laughter is about the release of pain and therefore highly appropriate for all the things in life which are not in the least amusing. When a client can play with pain, the result is laughter. It is essential that clinicians understand that they are not to play with the client’s pain for them nor give free rein to their own sense of humor. Doing so can result in a feeling of ridicule by the client and do unintentional harm. The therapist’s role is to help the client find ways to play with his pain that work for him and to assist him in keeping the process moving.
There are many ways to play with emotional pain. Some people do so instinctively and come for therapy already laughing and crying. Others need a little help in finding ways to play with their painful issues. For example, playfully looking at the “good things” about depression can help clients feel that they will be able to cope after all. Their depression becomes a little less consuming, allowing them to take positive action. The resulting laughter allows the client to feel the associated pain and move on. People who are able to see the things they care about the most with an outrageous sense of freedom, can play with their pain. There are no rules. Everyone’s pain is his own. If he chooses to play with it, it’s not only okay, it’s healthy. A client who can laugh about pain is able to feel it and heal more quickly. The laughter also allows it to become manageable.
For those reluctant to let go of their “serious” view of pain, it may be helpful to explore seriousness just a little. As adults, we are fairly obsessed with the idea that life must have meaning. As we superimpose meaning onto life, “we intellectualize it and distance ourselves from it….Distanced from life, we become isolated, alienated, and serious.” (Goodheart, 1994, p.25) Being serious about important things tends to lock us down in the pain. In order to stay serious, we have to maintain control. In maintaining control, we turn away from catharsis and the necessary release of emotion.
Upon entering adulthood and learning to distinguish importance from unimportance, we need to maintain our ability to take things playfully. Once we have learned to care about things, it is important to balance that concern in a way that eases the intensity. It isn’t terribly difficult to reverse our seriousness, once we understand the importance of doing so. It only requires reversing our early brainwashing and tapping into play which is “a socio-physiological state or posture of instinctive life. It is not only something that we do but something we are while we do it.” (Eastman, 1937, p. 16)
Inviting and facilitating laughter in therapy is not the same as developing and using humor to make the client laugh. Although not always true, making others laugh can be an issue of control and often dangerous. It can translate into ridicule without that being the intent. Humor is not necessary to have laughter. Adults can laugh without it as do infants. The greater our inhibitions and restraint, the more we need release of some kind. Our spirits will so desperately crave relaxation, that even the weakest stimuli will trigger the laughter response. (Mindess, 1971, p.245) In other words, we laugh to release emotion if our controls are off. Humor, though not a requirement, can be a cause for laughter, but clients must feel free to use it in their own way with their own issues. It is a good rule of thumb to beware of using humor with someone else’s pain because the result can be hurtful to them. Help them do it themselves instead.
Laughter in therapy enables clients to move closer to the core of their patterns of survival. Since these patterns developed in order to help the child survive, any attempt to alter them raises the client’s anxiety. The “child within,” whose feelings are protected by the pattern, fears that it will die if it is altered in any way. Laughter provides a means of changing things that feels safer. When clients laugh, their total selves move with energy. They will not be stymied by their pain. Their thoughts, made more spontaneous by laughter, create greater flexibility. As they laugh more and more readily, they regain self confidence. (Goodheart, 1994, p.120) They fear change less. Eased by their laughter, clients are more willing to find out who they really are.
As therapist and client approach the client’s pain playfully together, they are actually engaged in what may seem like a kind of joint, playful regression. Depending on the level of a person’s withdrawal or emotional lock down, it is helpful to begin at his level and retrieve him through laughter. It’s somewhat similar to saying to the client, “If you cannot or will not come out of your numbed shell, then I will go into it with you and lead you back out.” (Moody, 1978, p. 111) In enabling clients to laugh at any aspect of their pain, for that moment clinicians enable them to stand above it, acknowledge it, but treat it lightly in the awareness that they are touched but not contained by it. (Mindess,1971, p. 123) Clients are empowered by gaining perspective and find it easier to step out of the sense of victimization. Surprisingly, they find that their greatest place of power is in lightness.
There are many ways to help clients play with their pain. First and foremost, however, it is important to have a firm understanding of cathartic theory as the springboard for leading clients into laughter. Doing so without knowledge can result in harm however well intentioned therapists may be. People have different degrees of willingness and different capacities for creating playful approaches to their issues and their feelings. It is important that the therapist follow the client’s lead, approaching catharsis with the deep respect it deserves.
Laughter in therapy is not a paradox. The two belong together in the quest for healing. It is the wisdom of nature that equipped us to provide our own spoonful of laughter as a medicine for life. “Laughter and pain”, so perfectly paired, we even overlook the connection.
- Eastman, M. (1937). Enjoyment of Laughter. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Goodheart, A. (1994). Laughter Therapy. Santa Barbara: Less Stress Press.
- Healy, S. D. (1984). Boredom, Self, and Culture. Cranbury, N. J.:Associated University Presses.
- Montagu, A. (1989). Growing Young. New York: Bergin and Garvey Publishers.
- Mindess, H. (1971). Laughter and Liberation. Los Angeles: Nash Publishing.
- Moody, R. (1978). Laugh After Laugh. Jacksonville: Headwaters Press.
- Steinem, G. (1992). Revolution From Within: A Book of Self Esteem. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
©Enda Junkins 1999, PO Box 684, Ouray, CO 81427 970-325-0050
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