Diane nervously takes a seat during her first group therapy session since enrolling in residential treatment. While the circle of girls waits for the therapist to show up, one of the students says, “56.” Immediately, the whole group cracks up.
A second later, another girl shouts out, “12!” to a similar riot of laughter. This continues for a few minutes, with girls saying numbers to the great amusement of the group.
Confused, Diane turns to a girl sitting next to her and asks, “what’s going on? Everyone’s laughing at numbers. I don’t get it.”
“Oh,” says the girl, “we don’t usually have a time here to tell a whole joke, so we just memorize jokes from a common joke book. The girls are just saying the number that corresponds to a joke in the book. It’s a real time saver.”
After the session, Diane gets a copy of the book and reads it cover to cover. The next day during group while the girls wait for the therapist, Diane, thinks of her favorite joke and says, “43.” The group is silent. She tries again, “32,” but this joke only elicits a couple of groans.
Diane turns to her neighbor again for advice, “what’s going on? how come nobody is laughing.”
“Well,” answers the girl, “the jokes you picked are good, but your delivery is all wrong.”
When I first started working with special needs students I had what I was certain would be an easy assignment—play therapy with a class of six elementary school students. Yes, they had their struggles, but with such a tiny group, what could possibly go wrong? Plus, I was being paid to do something I was good at: playing.
It didn’t take long to learn the simple truth that you can’t make anybody—not even a cute little eight year old kid—do anything they really don’t want to do. And there was a lot, it turned out, that these little folks didn’t want to do. I had one student pick up an aluminum baseball bat and clear everything off the classroom shelves because he didn’t want to do crafts that day.
Another climbed a tree with a pocketful of rocks, which he threw at anyone who approached. He was a good enough shot to keep us at bay and stay in the tree for hours. Yet another student ran out of the classroom and across the street with me in pursuit. He pounded on the door of the first house he reached and told the owner that he didn’t know who I was and I was trying to kidnap him. The man believed him.
The more determined I became to gain and retain absolute control, the more it eluded me. These kids were making a fool out of me and I didn’t like it. What was I going to do?
The answer, it turned out, was to beat them at their own game. They couldn’t make a fool out of me if I was a fool to begin with. So a few weeks into this stressful new job I decided to employ a powerful new tool—my sense of humor.
Shifting the Paradigm
One day as I was teaching a unit about restaurant manners, Jose walked in. He was thirty minutes late. Jose was wearing his big down jacket when he sat down in his chair without a word, arms crossed and a big frown on his face. Whatever had happened at home that morning had clearly put him in a terrible mood.
“Jose, my friend, you know the drill. We hang our jackets up before sitting down.”
Jose just glowered at me. I turned back to the chalkboard and scribbled some more notes about “thank you,” “please,” and “chewing with your mouth closed.” When I turned back, Jose was still seated with his jacket on glowering at me.
“We can all wait for as long as you need us to, Jose, but it would be a shame for everyone to miss recess,” I said. The other students immediately expressed their unhappiness, first by protesting to me— “that’s not fair,” and then, when I remained unmoved, to Jose. “Just hang up your jacket, Jose!” The peer pressure was too much for Jose. He got up, marched to the coat closet, and put his coat on a hanger. But instead of hanging the jacket in the closet, he marched up to me and hung the jacket on my pants pocket. Then he sat back down, crossed his arms, and gave me a defiant stare.
“Thank you, Jose,” I said, as if he had complied perfectly. Then I continued with my lesson, pretending not to notice the jacket and exaggerating my movements so that it swung around me ridiculously. The class started to giggle and then to laugh. I could see Jose straining to force his face into a scowl, but after a while he couldn’t resist the hilarity. Soon, he was laughing as hard as anyone.
Surely You Jest
Humor is a magical confluence of timing, absurdity, and most of all, surprise. By definition, then, the best humor occurs when we least expect it—in situations that are tense, or serious, or important. There is a long, storied history of humor being used effectively in high-stakes situations to achieve a number of things—to break paralyzing tension, change the direction of a conversation, deliver otherwise unpalatable truths, cope with disaster, etcetera.
Historical and literary records indicate that the role of court jesters, for instance, went far beyond eliciting royal giggles. Jesters were in a unique position to deliver difficult counsel in novel, surprising ways. The effect of this kind of witty truth-telling was twofold: first, the jester could get away with delivering unsavory observations by coating it with the sugar of humor; second, because the jester was communicating familiar advice in new ways—using riddles or wit—the king or queen was more likely to engage, hear, and understand.
Researchers studying human resilience have cited humor as a key factor for surviving extreme stress, such as that experienced by combat soldiers and POWs. Humor can be an effective coping mechanism during these situations because it breaks tension, disrupts negative patterns of thinking and behaving, gives individuals a sense of perspective on their situation, and helps individuals retain a sense of personal control.
Therapy as Funny Business
In a therapeutic setting, humor can have a similar function. Humor during individual and group therapy—whether from the therapist or the client—can lighten a mood, break a pattern, improve sharing, create a sense of perspective, generate a feeling of well-bring and hope, and provide an effective delivery system for difficult feedback. Family systems therapists will sometimes encourage family members to consciously employ a form of humor to interrupt entrenched relational patterns.
A therapist might, for instance, advise a client to do a silly dance the next time he finds himself in a familiar pattern of conflict with his wife. The silly dance is designed to interrupt a habitual pattern of hostility and break tension so that something can take the place of hostility. It’s hard to stay mad when faced with something ridiculous.
Humor is so powerful as a therapeutic tool, in fact, that there is a professional association dedicated to the study and use of humor in treatment. The Associate for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH) defines therapeutic humor as “any intervention that promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful discovery, expression or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life’s situations. This intervention may enhance health or be used as a complementary treatment of illness to facilitate healing or coping, whether physical, emotional, cognitive, social or spiritual.”
When faced with the serious issues that often drive family dysfunction, humor can seem out of place. But the next time you feel the urge to make a funny observation in the face of grave circumstances, remember Abraham Lincoln’s wise counsel to his colleagues during the Civil War: “Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me day and night, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”
Then, go ahead and say something funny. It might be just what everyone needs.