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Humor and Mental Illness

Here’s another report from the Humanities Research Seminar on the topic of humor.  In this installment, Kim Ivey, a graduate student in Anthropology, considers the ways in which humor might be used to help better understand and event treat mental illness.

“Good humor is a tonic for mind and body. It is the best antidote for anxiety and depression. It is a business asset. It attracts and keeps friends. It lightens human burdens. It is the direct route to serenity and contentment.”

– Grenville Kleiser

As participants of the humor seminar have learned this semester, humor is a consistent element of the human condition.  Our everyday exchanges are dotted with joking and laughter.  We can express joy with mirthful smiles or disapproval with sarcastic humor.  It seems to be an invaluable device in the Homo sapiens’ toolbox.  But, how can this instrument be honed to comfort our minds?

For many years, laughter has been known to have a curative effect on health and well-being.  Even in the Book of Proverbs in the Bible, we find the verse, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”  Doctors and philosophers have prescribed humor and laughter throughout history.  For many decades in the United States, however, the psychological treatment of mental illness has been focused almost exclusively on negative symptoms.  Therapies have also centered on traumatic or painful explanations – forcing the patient to relive haunting memories on the long road to recovery.  It seems at some point doctors and psychologists held the notion of “humor being good for health” in a different realm than their serious business of diagnosing the ill mind and its deep-rooted conflicts.

wasted dayIn recent years, however, research and therapist-led change has moved in the direction of positive psychology.  Instead of looking for the bad in every situation, they promote the positive aspects.  Some of the treatments utilize humor or laughter – bringing us back to our topic of interest.  Ways of introducing the humor approach include use of jovial drawings about the patient’s complaints (done cautiously and in a non-threatening way), laughter through joking, and watching comedies.  These techniques, and others, can be applied in individual or group therapy.  Results vary, yet most studies have yielded at least some optimistic results such as reduction in negative psychiatric symptoms, lower anxiety, and a drop in depression.  Other benefits were an enhanced coping ability, increased regulation of thoughts and feelings, and the ability to laugh at oneself.

Humor possesses real power, and it seems imperative that we dedicate more time to its study, benefits, and meaning in in our lives.  For what is a life lived without laughter?  Mark Twain once said, “The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”  Hopefully, we will wield our weapons wisely.

For more information about positive psychology visit these links: