The Psychological Power of Humor

Humor: Why Aren’t Psychotherapists Using It?
Heather Tree

University of Kansas

Mixing humor with psychotherapy hardly seems like an appropriate combination. Depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse are not a laughing matter (Granick, 1995). Psychologists are not paid to tell jokes or humorous stories. However, the reality is that many therapists regard humor as a valuable tool that can be used in sessions to address personal, social, and emotional problems.

Sigmund Freud was one of the first to evaluate the use of humor and laughter and how it interacts with human personality. Freud wrote in his 1905 book, Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, that jokes enable individuals to defend against fear, anxiety, anger, and other disturbing emotions. He also concluded that humor has a liberating effect on people, providing comfort and help in relieving the pains of misfortunes, and thereby enabling them to deal with situations in a mature manner. Freud used humor into his own sessions when illustrating points or clarifying an insight.

Freud’s ideas have been brought into the 20th century by Farrelly and Mathews (1981) who developed a counseling approach called Provocative therapy. This type of therapy offers a full-fledged and intensely interactive relationship with the client. Provocative therapy assumes the client is not as psychologically fragile as usually considered and that challenging the pathology that client’s exhibit will cause significant change (Farrelly & Mathews). Humor plays a vital role in this type of therapy. Among the techniques offered by the therapist, (i.e., exaggeration, distortion, and, sarcasm) humor is thought of as the best way to elicit maladaptive behaviors. Therapists are encouraged ridicule the maladaptive behavior the client displays, rather than the client. Thus humor is employed in a benign and friendly manner.

Another humor-based therapeutic technique was employed by O’Connell’s (1981) Natural High Therapy. He uses such techniques as the empty chair, role playing by both client and counselor, guided imagery, and dialogue with significant others to help clients find ind the displaced creative energy. In addition to O’Connell’s counseling approach, he has also developed a therapeutic technique called “humordrama” which teaches therapists to use humor in a psychodramatic format.

Humor also has been implemented and seen in better known therapies. Albert Ellis has used humor to challenge client’s false and irrational beliefs. Corey (1986) has stated that Adlerian therapists use humor to enrich the relationship between counselor and client. He goes on to recognize what a welcome relief laughing is to a serious situation. Humor has been reported in Behavioral therapy in counter-conditioning and in self-management. If humor has been such a vital part of therapy from the beginning why do therapists have such a hard time using it?

Kuhlman (1984) does not prove to be as excited about the use of humor in psychotherapy as Farrally, Corey, Ellis, or O’Connell. Specifically, Kuhlman views humor as having only a moment-to-moment tactical benefit without any long term gains. However, others consider the long term goal of humor to be the everlasting change of behavior (e.g., Saper, 1987). How a client sees and treats a relationship in the future can be the long term goal or strategy of humor.

Whether you believe humor should or shouldn’t be involved in your therapy session is up to you. As a basic rule, humor always should be benign and pleasant. It can, if used correctly, contribute to the creation of a non-threatening therapeutic rapport. It can elicit and facilitate communication and foster a favorable working relationship between therapist and client.


Corey, G. (1986). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (3rd). Monterey

CA: Brooks/Cole.

Farrelly, F., & Mathews, S. (1981). Provocative Therapy. In R. J. Corsini (Ed.),

Innovative psychotherapies. (pgs 678-693). New York: Wiley.

Frued, S. (1960). Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. New York: Norton.

Kulman, T.L. (1984). Humor and Psychotherapy. Homeland, IL: Dow-Jones-Irwin

Martin, R. (2003). Sense of Humor. In Lopez, S.J., & Synder, C.R. (Eds). Positive

Psychological Assessment: A Handbook of Models and Measures. American

Psychological Association: Washington DC.

O’Connell, W.E. (1981). Natural High Therapy. In R. J. Corsini (Ed.),

Innovative psychotherapies. (pgs 678-693). New York: Wiley.

Saper, B. (1987). Humor in psychotherapy: Is it good or bad for the client? Professional

Psychology:Research and Practice, 18(4),360-367.

Ventis, W.L. (1980). Humor in Behavioral Therapy. In H. Mindness & J. Turek (Eds),

The Study of Humor (pg 16-23). Los Angeles: Antioch University Press.