Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Is Humor Only Fun, an Alternative Cure or Magic? the Cognitive Therapeutic Potential of Humor

Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Is Humor Only Fun, an Alternative Cure or Magic? the Cognitive Therapeutic Potential of Humor

Article excerpt

The paper deals with the therapeutic potential of humor, emphasizing in particular its properties as a tool of cognitive therapy. The variety, commonness and pervasiveness of the claims about the beneficial effects of humor justify the need to examine these effects in view of modern findings. The first part is devoted to reviewing studies describing the contributions of humor to physical well-being, such as reducing pain, decreasing proneness to heart disease and enhancing immunological responses. The effects are positive but weak and may be considered as belonging to the background factors promoting physical health. The second part is devoted to reviewing studies describing the contributions of humor to psychological well-being, mainly its emotional effects, such as reducing tension and aggression or enhancing social feelings, and its cognitive effects, such as mental flexibility, shifting, playfulness, optimism and distancing. The next sections deal with reviewing the presumed clinical effects of humor, focusing on the processes through which it has been claimed to contribute to facilitating individual and group psychotherapy. The clinical effects depend upon integrating humor into the overall therapy. In the last section an attempt is made to present a cognitive model which, by showing how humor coalesces the emotional and cognitive effects, may account for the diverse curative effects of humor.

The recent revival of interest in humor as a therapeutic tool (e.g., Anchor, 1991; Fry & Salameh, 1987; Haig, 1988) is related to two major trends characteristic of the western world in general and of health ideology in particular in the last decades. One is the emergence of 'alternative' medical-psychological-spiritual therapies, such as relaxation or meditation which are increasingly admitted into the confines of the legally sanctioned consensus (McGuire, 1988). The other is faith in the natural curative resources of the mind and body and the impact of the former on the latter (Warga, 1984).

The positive view of humor as enhancing the quality of life of mind and body is essentially a new development. Goldstein (1982, 1987) showed that up to the end of the 19th century in most western countries laughter was considered impolite, sinful and even detrimental to spiritual and physiological well-being: starting with Plato who regarded humor as negating 'know thyself and Aristotle who viewed it as a category of the ugly, through Kant who described it as a short-circuiting of cognition, down to Sir Arthur Mitchell (1905) who defined laughter as "a state of mental disorder," and Freud (1960) who linked humor to repressed hostility and sexuality. The trend shifted in the last 100 years when humor became socially sanctioned and then gradually was hailed for its life-enforcing and curative powers by popular writers (Cousins, 1991; Long, 1987) and psychoanalysts (see Strozier, 1987, about Kohut's approach to humor), who served as a bridge between folk wisdom ('mirth keeps disease at bay') and the slowly accumulating hard-core scientific evidence.

Our main purpose was to examine whether the positive view of humor as a therapeutic tool is sufficiently sustained by empirical research. We will seek an answer by reviewing experimental and clinical evidence in regard to well-being in its broad sense, encompassing both the physical and psychological domains, each of which manifests the psycho-physical or physico-psychological interaction. A further purpose was to suggest a psychological, empirically based explanation for the broad variety of psycho-physical effects attributed to humor.

Studies we reviewed dealt with such disparate phenomena as responses to humorus stimuli (smiling, laughter), sensitivity to and preference for humorous stimuli (often called sense of humor), the preferred use of humor as a coping mechanism (mostly assessed by the coping humor questionnaire), and the production of humorous stimuli. Since our review was designed to answer specific questions and the number of relevant studies was limited, we preferred specifying in each case which aspect of humor was studied rather than selecting specific aspects on an a-priori basis. …

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