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Give Clients the License to Laugh

March 1, 2006
by Nicholas A. Roes, PhD
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When comedian Chris Rock was in school, his teachers told him he had better settle down and get serious, because he wasn't going to be able to joke his way through life. Luckily, he didn't listen.1 Perhaps therapists are making a similar mistake by undervaluing the power of a sense of humor as an ingredient in sobriety.

Nicholas a. roes, phd
Nicholas A. Roes, PhD

There's a connection between being in touch with one's unique sense of humor and having a healthy self-esteem. Our bodies' healing system responds to positive thoughts, moods, and emotions, and responds negatively to depression, anxiety, pessimism, loneliness, and hopelessness. A well-developed sense of humor can be an excellent coping mechanism.

Laughter contributes to physical health (relaxing muscles, reducing tension, and enhancing the immune system), emotional health (it's a protective factor against anxiety and depression), and social well-being (it can create a bond among people of diverse backgrounds).2

So what are we supposed to do? Instruct our clients to tell two jokes and call us in the morning? As role models for our clients, we should use humor appropriately ourselves. While always being sensitive to and respectful of others, we might use humor as an icebreaker or stress reliever.

Always tread carefully

If you perceive any risk that a client will think you are not taking his/her concerns seriously, don't joke around. More humor is not necessarily better, and overuse may actually distract clients from taking positive actions to reduce the causes of stress in their lives. Most clients we see need more fun in their lives, but if they focus only on the fun, they will miss out on the other rewarding aspects of a sober lifestyle.

But humor helps clients learn. The information shared in cognitive training and skill instruction is easier to retain when presented with a healthy infusion of humor. Humor has also been found to contribute to group bonding.2

Many clients operate under the mistaken notion that self-induced suffering will make them better people. They may feel guilty or shameful about past choices, and think they deserve to suffer. Or they may think that suffering is equivalent to growth pains. Clients should be helped to realize that they can learn much more from joy than they can from pain. Pain can provide some useful information as a signal that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. But pain doesn't provide information on what is right—joy does.

Don't encourage clients to avoid death at the expense of life. Play is as important as work. It nurtures our soul—without it, life becomes a chore. That's when unhealthy escape from reality becomes a more attractive option.

Taking a humor inventory

In his book Health, Healing, and the Amuse System, Paul E. McGhee offers advice for the humor-impaired. His ideas are easily adaptable for use with substance abuse and dually diagnosed clients.

First, help your clients get in touch with their own unique sense of humor. Ask about what types of jokes, movies, cartoons, or sitcoms they like; what types of humor they find offensive; and who has most influenced their sense of humor. This will help you gain insights about each client that you might not have learned otherwise.

Encourage your clients to cultivate their sense of fun. Do they do at least one fun thing every day? They may need help distinguishing situations in which being playful is appropriate from those in which it's not. Help clients understand that real humor is based on love—not on an agenda such as putting someone down.

Laughter may not always be the best medicine, and emotional distance often is needed. With the loss of a loved one, for example, grief would be the completely natural and healthy response.

Clients can examine the place laughter has in their lives, can practice sharing humorous stories, and can develop spontaneous verbal humor. McGhee's book includes several exercises that may be helpful in assessing and developing a sense of humor.

One suggestion is for clients to record all the things they don't like about themselves. Sometimes just writing these things down can reduce the power they hold over clients. The list then can be divided into major concerns, minor concerns, and things the client could not possibly change. Once again, this list will give you information about each client that you might not have learned otherwise.

Starting with the minor concerns is usually easiest for clients. Ask them to share an example of a mistake or bad experience they've had. Once they've talked about it, ask if there's anything at all funny about it. Clients can also journal about situations they find overwhelming, and look for humor in past stressful situations.

Other suggestions include having clients look for relevant cartoons and ask themselves, “What will I find funny in this situation next week?” We can all think of challenging situations we have been through that now, upon reflection, make us smile. The sooner clients can connect with the smile, the sooner they can use the challenge as a learning opportunity. Another question clients may ask is, “How would [my favorite comedian] handle this situation?”

It's on the toughest days that our clients need their sense of humor the most. The goal is for them to develop a sense of humor that will become a protective factor that decreases the likelihood of relapse and improves the quality of sobriety.

Nicholas A. Roes, PhD, has written hundreds of articles and several books, including