Laughter as Therapy

When I first heard about my friend Hanna’s cancer diagnosis, I remember the shock and devastation I felt. I started considering the fragility of life in general, and the possibility of her passing before her time. Throughout her journey and battle with cancer, she continually maintained her dark sense of humor, which allowed for sharing moments of laughter together even amidst the most absurd, distressing times.

When we encounter the most difficult realities of life, such as the constancy of death, our lives can feel absurd and meaningless. What often kept me from surrendering to that nihilism throughout Hanna’s diagnosis was laughter. Due to the degree of discomfort, pain, and exhaustion she experienced throughout her battle with cancer, humor helped her cope and kept her feelings of fear and overwhelm at bay. There were many moments of laughter intermixed with tears amongst her and her loved ones. Even towards the end of her life, she continually found humor even while she knew her time was coming to an end.

Not only have most of us experienced similar personal losses, but we are also still grieving collective losses due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As much as we try to move forward, we cannot forget the impact of the pandemic. Over the past few years, there has been a collective acknowledgment of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. Currently, we are also grieving and mourning the current happenings in Israel and Gaza, which can leave us feeling helpless and hopeless. How do we cope? While there are many agents of hope, one of the most effective tools is laughter. Healing can occur when collective moments of grief are met with collective moments of joy.

Beyond my personal experiences with laughter, studies have shown the cathartic effects of laughter and humor. Laughter can reduce stress and improve quality of life overall, specifically aiding in lessening depressive and anxiety symptoms (Akimbekov and Razzaque, 2021). Studies have also shown that laughter used in therapeutic spaces allows for the expression and release of previously concealed emotions (Hatzipapas et al., 2017). Further, incorporating laughter can deepen intimacy and potentially increase positive social relationships in your life (Hatzipapas et al., 2017).

I believe laughter can be one of the most effective clinical tools for healing in the therapeutic space. Laughter inherently aligns with the framework of positive psychology, which focuses on mental wellness rather than mental illness (Hatzipapas et al., 2017). It is then important to be intentional about the use of humor in therapy and understand its purpose. Humor and laughter can be used to cover up or deflect from processing heavy feelings. They can offer distraction or diminish the impact of the circumstances of our client. However, when intuitively and thoughtfully utilized, laughter can be transformative.

Laughter can be a means of avoidance and it can also be a means of reckoning with difficult realities. Sometimes life is too much, too painful, and just laughing with a loved one can help you feel less alone. Sharing in a moment of laughter does not diminish the gravity of the hard realities of life but, in fact, can allow us to take life quite seriously. Even if it does nothing of the above, it can at least provide a break from the difficult realities of life for a little while, even when it is difficult to do so. I encourage you to find things that make you laugh; and if you need some help, this video makes me giggle. Who or what has made you laugh recently?

Hatzipapas, I., Visser, M. J., & Janse van Rensburg, E. (2017). Laughter therapy as an intervention to promote psychological well-being of volunteer community care workers working with HIV-affected families. SAHARA J : journal of Social Aspects of HIV/AIDS Research Alliance, 14(1), 202–212.

Akimbekov, N. S., & Razzaque, M. S. (2021). Laughter therapy: A humor-induced hormonal intervention to reduce stress and anxiety. Current research in physiology, 4, 135–138.

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