Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Humor and Creative Life Styles

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Humor and Creative Life Styles

Article excerpt

Humor and Creative Life Styles*


This paper is based upon the writings of William James in the late 19th century, and Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud in the 20th, enriched by the contributions of later personality and role theorists. The self is defined as the unique organization of each person; a style is the self in action. Different life styles and their components are expressed in different situations. I posit that humor and positive thinking, combined with meaning and purpose, are vital components of all constructive life styles. The knowledge of life styles cuts through diagnostic labels to reveal our universal humanity. It can be fruitfully applied to patients and nonpatients alike and, I found, for the self-understanding of therapist. The clinical application of life styles is illustrated through numerous vignettes.

This paper developed originally out of my interest in studying the life styles that are most constructive not only for clients in counseling and psychiatric therapy but, as it developed, for everyone. Since the television program, "Life styles of the rich and famous," most people think that "life styles" means living in lavish mansions and wearing expensive clothes. The original life-style concept, that goes back to William James, 100 years ago, and Alfred Adler, shortly after, is more meaningful and valuable.

A life style is the self in action, in different situations. It is an organized pattern of interests and activities that is unique, according to Alfred Adler (1) and characteristic of an individual. William James noted that we are different selves with different people or settings, for example at home with the family, at work, or in social relations. He added that the continuity of the sense of self is one of the most puzzling issues in psychology (2, p. 333) (Social role theory has addressed that issue in terms of one self, involved in multiple roles.)

My thesis is that humor and positive thinking, combined with meaning and purpose, are parts of all constructive life styles. They lead to well-being and satisfaction in living. As a psychologist who has worked with emotionally disturbed people for over 50 years, the last 30 with suicidal patients and their families, I am indebted to many figures in psychology, psychiatry, and sociology for the theoretical background, as well as to my patients, who taught me about the actual process of therapy.

Humor was not part of most of my therapy sessions, but I shall begin with an example of the use of humor during psychotherapy with an elderly depressed man, since examples that involve humor are valuable for illustrating clinical experiences. They are relatively concise and complete in themselves, and the principles behind the therapeutic use of humor are the same as with interpretation, relabeling, and other nonhumorous interventions. All these procedures lead us to question our unexamined and maladaptive assumptions, and shake up our mental and emotional systems. Consequently, we are presented with sudden, unexpected, and positive insights that can have a curative effect.

Vignette 1

Peter O., a 71-year-old man, came to the mental health clinic with the symptom of periodic uncontrolled sobbing. He was placed on antidepressant medication, and I saw him and his wife in psychotherapy. Mr. 0. felt fine for two months, but then reported that his sobbing had returned in full force. "Did anything happen to set it off?" I asked. "Nothing," he replied. "Don't you remember that Al died?" said his wife. Al was one of his good friends. It turned out that the sobbing episodes occurred every time a relative, a friend, or just about anyone he knew died. Mr. 0. finally said, "I'm afraid that I am going to die."

"No one knows when he will die," I said. "You know the story of the 95-year-old man who won 10 million dollars in the lottery? His family was afraid to tell him, for fear that the shock would be too great. …

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