Kinkazzo Burning
~ reflections & disquisitions
It takes both sunshine and rain to make a rainbow...

Laughing about Humour

It has been said that humor consists of wit a thought-oriented experience, mirth an emotionally-oriented experience, and laughter a physiologically-oriented experience. And while each can be experienced independently of the others, when experienced together they synergistically create the witty/mirthful/laughful experience we refer to simply as humour.

Wit as a thought-oriented experience

Wit changes how we cognitively process, appreciate, or "think" about life's events and situations. Jokes are a classic example of how wit changes thinking. In a joke we are guided down one path only to be tracked over onto an alternative path. It is the discrepancy and even trickery of the alterative path (the punch line) that we experience as humorous. Such discrepancy and trickery teaches us to seek alternative explanations for events, which is one process of healthy thinking and creative problem solving. Norman Cousins once called this process trainwrecks of the mind meaning that wit causes us to track over to other thinking patterns and perspectives. Alternative thinking processes provided by wit provide perspective, and can reduce negative thinking common during depression, anxiety, and anger.

Mirth as an emotional experience

Humor changes how we feel emotionally by helping us to experience mirth. While labeling it humor, Mark Twain once described the mirthful experience in the following way:

Humor [Mirth] is the great thing, the saving thing, after all. The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.

Mirth can be a powerful experience for eliminating unhealthy feelings. We have all experienced the joy (mirth) of a humorous experience, and know the pleasure of that feeling. As we experience the emotional sensation of mirth, other feelings such as depression, anxiety, and anger are, at least temporarily, eliminated.

That is, one cannot experience mirth and at the same time experience such powerful emotions as irritation, resentment, or upset. In fact, the experience of mirth not only eliminates these emotions, but as Twain so astutely realized, mirth replaces these emotions or gives "mirth" to a 'sunny spirit' such as the lighter experience of joy, pleasure, happiness, etc.

Groucho Marx

Laughter as a physiological experience

Laughter changes how we feel physically, and it affects our biochemistry. We are all familiar with the feeling of 'lightness' that follows deep belly laughter. Norman Cousins reported that 10-20 minutes of deep belly laughter gave him hours free from the pain of his debilitating disease. Laughter has been described as a "jogging of the internal organs." The physiological benefits of laughter-such as an increase in certain antibodies, decrease in levels of stress hormones, and a decrease in heart rate of "heavy laughers"-have been presented in numerous research studies. Laughter is also believed to stimulate the muscular and skeletal systems. Laughter serves as the physiological/biochemical element of humor.

The 'humor experience' is a synergistic interrelationship of the effects of humor as it changes cognition, emotion, and physiology. People experience humor in different ways. For example, some people are more likely to 'appreciate' wit (cognitive) without experiencing mirth or laughter. These people are likely to say they understand the a joke and like the joke but do not laugh or experience the mirth.

Others are more likely to experience mirth (emotional) without a cognitive or physiological reaction. Children, in much of what adults view as 'silly behavior,' are experiencing mirth while they may not be appreciating wit, and they may not even be laughing (although they frequently are).

We also know that we can experience laughter that is independent of wit or mirth. Spontaneous laughter or laughter contagion are examples. Even laughter that is triggered during anxiety may be an example of laughter stimulated without wit or mirth. The fullest and, most powerful, humor experience, however, is one that is experienced with all three components simultaneously.

While each of us probably has a 'primary humor receptor' (cognitive, emotional, or physiological)-or primary way of processing humor (e.g. cognitively, emotionally, physiologically)-we are likely to use all three avenues in varying amounts at varying times. The more that we can train ourselves to appreciate (cognitive), feel (mirth), and physically experience (laugh) the more potent and healthful the humorous experience will become.


While the use of humour in therapeutic settings continues to gain respect, and we are becoming more serious about humour, skeptics continue to express concerns about "negative uses of humour." These negative types of humour include sarcasm, put- downs, humour which is insensitive to the emotional experience of the receiver, and humour which is used to create distance from emotional experience. In order to avoid 'negative' humour, it is essential for the helping professional to learn how to differentiate between potentially therapeutic and potentially harmful humour. Also, to use humour in therapeutic ways, it is important to determine the appropriate time when another person will be receptive to a specific type of humor. To use humour therapeutically one must examine: 1) the target of humour (humour aimed at self, situations, and/or others); 2) the environmental conditions in which humor is presented (with whom, at what time, and in what setting); and 3) the specific individual's receptivity to humour.


In general, the target of humour tends to be oneself, another person, or a situation. If healthy humour (that which brings people together, reduces stress, provides perspective, and feels good) and harmful humour (that which alienates others, increases hostility, and ultimately feels bad) were endpoints of a humour continuum, then humor aimed at oneself and humour aimed at another person would anchor those endpoints. That is, humour aimed at oneself is more likely to be healthful while humour aimed at others is more likely to be harmful. Humour aimed at situations falls in between these two extremes.

For example, when we use humour directed at ourselves we learn to laugh at ourselves. Furthermore, others around us feel safe as they are not the target of the humour. When we laugh at situations the humour is once again directed away from others. Conversely, humor that is directed at others is the most dangerous and potentially harmful type of humour. For example, humour that insults or mocks specific individuals or groups of people has greater harm potential. Even when the giver of the humour is a member of the target group, others in the group may reject the humour and feel insulted or put down. Therefore, as a rule of thumb humour directed at oneself as an individual is safest, while humor directed at situations is still relatively safe, and humor directed at others is most risky and, therefore, is located at the negative end of the humour continuum.

Also, there are interrelationships between humour aimed at oneself, situations, and at others. For example, jokes about earthquake victims in California, flood victims in the midwest, or freeze victims in the northeast may help many deal with the crisis, but for those emersed in the crisis such humour may be experienced as insensitive. In these particular situations, humour is experienced by the individual in crisis as directed at him/herself. This occurs because during crisis individuals find it difficult to perceive the crisis as separate from themselves, and, therefore, the humour aimed at the crisis is experienced as directed at the individual. Once one is able to generate distance from the traumatic experience, the humour about the trauma is experienced as separate from the individual and can be perceived humorously. We are all familiar with the phrase, "It wasn't funny at the time," which implies that at some later time the situation was experienced humorously.


As noted above, humour ranges from therapeutic to harmful based on the target of the humor. Receptivity to therapeutic humor is also based on environmental conditions such as the nature and bond the relationship, the timing and circumstance when humor is shared, and the setting in which humour is presented. For example, we may have a strong bond with a loved one, but humour about death in close proximity to a significant death may be poorly timed. In addition, as medical professionals, we have a responsibility to be sensitive not only to the intended receiver of our humour but to others who might intentionally or unintentionally experience our humour.

All professions use humour to cope with stressors. This is particularly evident in the medical professions where humour is a powerful coping mechanism. However, the humour we share as medical professionals is often not appropriate for our patients or clients to overhear. We must be sensitive to others and the environment to be sure that our humour is experienced only by those for whom the humour was intended.


Beyond the target and environment surrounding humour, we must consider "humour factors" that are idiosyncratic. That is, each individual's receptivity will be at least partially determined by his/her own "humour quotient." An individual's humour quotient is the extent to which he/she experiences humour. There are four methods to assess an individual's humour quotient. These are: 1) observing current uses of humour; 2) soliciting the role of humour in the individual's life; 3) observing the individual's ability to laugh at him/herself; and 4) observing the individual's response to the humour of others.

Observing Current Uses of Humour

The first and easiest way to assess another's receptivity to humour is to observe his/her own presentation of humor with you and with others. The more an individual uses humour in healthful ways the more receptive he/she will be to humour interventions. However, if the individual uses distancing humour such as sarcasm and put downs then he/she is less likely to be receptive to therapeutic humour.

Soliciting the Role of Humour in the Individual's Life

The second way to assess an individual's humour is to ask him/her what role humor plays in his/her life. This can be done in a direct self-report fashion such as simply asking what role humor plays, or it can be assessed more playfully by asking questions about an individual's favorite cartoon, comedian, humorous movie, television comedy, joke, humorous story, etc. The quickness of another's response, along with the energy level of the response and extent of the response, indicate the importance of humour in the person's life.

Observing the Individual's Ability to Laugh at Him/Herself

The third method to assess humour receptivity is observation of the individual's ability to laugh at him/herself. The more an individual is able to laugh at him/herself the higher his/her self esteem, and the more receptive he will be to humour interventions. Being able to laugh at oneself requires a solid level of self esteem and a strong self concept.

Observing the Individual's Response to the Humour of Others

The fourth humour assessor involves presenting humor to the person and observing his/her reaction. As the presenter of humour you may share a joke, story, cartoon, prop, or other element of humour. As you present humour, you observe the other's reaction. Laughter, smiles, an increase in energy, a willingness to share his/her own humour, etc. are all indicators of the other's receptivity to humour.

Therapeutic humour can be a powerful tool to facilitate emotional, cognitive, behavioural, and physiological well being. Like many other forms of therapeutic interventions, it is not neutral--it can be healthful or harmful. As health professionals it is our responsibility to assess and evaluate our use of therapeutic humour so that we increase the probability that our humour interventions will be healthful.

The preceding article has explored how to assess an individual's receptivity to therapeutic humour. Future exploration is also needed to assess the individual health professional's motivation to use humour. That is, what is it that prompts an individual to respond with a humorous intervention. It is also important that we, as helping professionals employing therapeutic humor, ask ourselves, "Why am I using this humour at this moment?" and "How will this humour intervention be beneficial to my patient/clients?"

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