A godsend to mankind. Humor not only chases away the black clouds of depression and despair, but even heals the most severe physical illnesses.
Two drinking buddies are sitting at a bar, arguing. One guy slurs, "You are a blithering idiot!" After a tense silence, the other one asks: "Wait a second…is that a joke, or do you really mean it?" The first guy looks back and says, "I mean it." The other guy breathes a sigh of relief and says "That's good - because I can't take such jokes."
Smiling? Great! A good joke is by far and wide the best psychotherapy. Still, some academics dismiss humor with a wallop of skepticism. Anyone who makes fun of a serious matter must be one sandwich shy of a picnic - or at the very least, somewhat unprofessional. Especially if the matter deals with a forbidding subject like the human psyche, with all its aberrations. Psychoanalysts know exactly what I mean, and yet they still insist it is taboo to crack even half a smile in front of a patient. A therapist has to be stoic, absolutely impenetrable and aloof - while at the same time compassionate.
That, in any case, was the guiding philosophy used to train psychotherapists. William Fry, an important figure in the field, complained that even when he was still a university student, it was taught that the use of humor in therapy was unnecessary, dangerous and undesirable. Humor in psychotherapy was the 200-pound gorilla in the therapist's office. Indeed, in the past going to a psychiatrist was synonymous with a never-ending story of immutable chronic depression; we turned into a society of urban neurotics, the kind that Woody Allen portrayed with such self-studied irony.
Even a pessimist like Friedrich Nietzsche acknowledged humor as an absolute necessity to survival: "Perhaps I know why it is man alone who laughs - he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter." - Be that as it may: humor makes everything in life a little bit easier. Even in psychotherapy.
In fact, most especially there. Because when people are bothered about themselves, humor allows them to step back and not take themselves so seriously. In addition, psychotherapist and author Michael Titze finds that humor represents a refreshing, relaxing, original and stimulating relationship that provides for openness and balance between therapist and patient.
Psychotherapy is heading for some fun times; many new currents, mostly from the USA, and renowned psychiatrists are guiding it along. They have integrated humor into their therapy, and achieved very good results with it.
One of them is Austrian Paul Watzlawick, a professor at Stanford University, member of the Palo Alto Group and published author whose works have sold millions. One of his favorite subjects is the aspect of "bisociation" found in humor. A Pickwickian term for something rather simple: two levels, two perspectives on reality that have nothing to do with each other become interlinked to each other in an unconventional way. It's like when a cabaret artist once mentioned that he had just been given a portrait of Hitler as a gift, and asked ""I don't know, should I just string it up or put it up against a wall and use it for target practice?"
The double meaning slaps us in the face - and unleashes a roar of laughter. But not only that. The unexpected confluence of two seemingly incompatible worlds can also spur creativity. One example from the ancients is Archimedes, who was tasked by a Persian king with determining if his crown was really made of solid gold, or only covered in gold. Overwrought and perplexed, poor Archimedes decided to treat himself to a relaxing bath after a long period of brooding. As he immersed himself in the full bathtub, he noticed how his body displaced the water to overflowing and - Eureka! - found the solution: He dunked the crown in a bucket filled to the brim with water and measured how much water flowed out. Based on the weight of the crown and the amount of displaced water, he could then determine the mass of the crown and with that, establish its gold content.
A similarly creative solution was also used as the plot for a movie about the Spanish laying siege to a tiny village 200 years ago. Upon first glance, the villagers had only two options: either fight a hopeless battle and provoke a gruesome bloodbath, or surrender, which would not prevent the pillage, plunder and rape sure to follow. Yet the women of the town came up with a third alternative: they sent all of the men to hide in the nearby forest. Then the village, defenseless and now only inhabited by women, opened its gates to the Spanish, and welcomed the invaders. Taken by complete surprise at the ladies' gentility, the Spanish were lulled back to their sense of honor; each man behaved with the gallantry expected of a cavalier to a graceful lady. By the time the Spanish army finally withdrew, they even left precious tokens of appreciation for the hospitality they enjoyed.
A magic word: creativity. Today, when everything seems fraught with problems, nothing could be more in demand. Creativity is prized by the top executive levels of a corporation, and it is sought after (albeit rarely) in the schoolroom. Perhaps this explains why we've largely forgotten how to laugh: the constant reinforcement that only a serious, goal-oriented individual can make something of himself. Yet creativity is simply a means of escape from an apparently inescapable bipolar prison, the means to find completely new, unconventional alternatives. And humor is exquisitely suited to assist in that endeavor, because it can pierce the tension of a situation, because the confusion of the initial moment unleashes a sort of "shock" that trails a belt of laughter behind it.
The ingenious Milton Erickson was on the right track for his time toward this aspect of confusion. It is said he once had an encounter with a man who, in his haste, ran into him. Whereupon Erickson looked down at his watch and said politely: "The time is exactly ten minutes after two o'clock." - although it was almost four o'clock, gave the man a friendly nod and kept going. A while later, Erickson turned around and found the stranger, as if rooted on the spot, staring at him in bewilderment.
He had played this game ever since he was a child. There once was a stable hand who was using all his might to lead a donkey into a stall. The animal bucked, as donkeys are wont to do, planted its haunches firmly to the ground and did not budge. No matter how hard the man tugged and cursed at it. So what did little Milton do? A quick yank on the donkey's tail - and the donkey was sent flying through the stall.
"Confusion is the best method of debunking strongly held assumptions." Milton Erickson followed this maxim to success with his mentally ill patients. The goal was to confuse the patients so much with unconnected trivialities that they no longer clung so tightly to their problems, and at those moments were open to new perspectives and paths to solutions.
For instance, one of the therapist's "half-witted," completely inappropriate, but healing remarks might include the following nonsense: "The word "short" is short, however the word "long" is short like "short." - The patient stares back at him blankly and for a "short" moment, forgets his problem. And in that moment, he is more receptive to new, different perspectives. Perhaps he will even laugh after the initial confusion, because what else makes a good joke than using unconventional means to bring two things together that have absolutely nothing to do with each other? The greater the ensuing shock of recognition ("when the first shoe drops"), the more successful the point. Humor can loosen rigidly held defensive behavior patterns and replace them with more flexible ones.
Many therapists nowadays even use humor as a prescription for paradoxical symptoms. As in homeopathy, like is healed by like. Take for instance one woman who found it impossible to say no, because she never wanted to disappoint anyone - and as a consequence was taken advantage of by everyone. In a group therapy session, the therapist challenged her to reject everything suggested to her. Filled with indignation, she snapped, "No, I can't, I just said…" Only then did she realize that her immediate response was "No," - whereupon she laughed to the point of tears. Anyone who can laugh about his problems has already beaten them.
These paradoxical treatment methods were first described in 1914 by Alfred Adler. He advised one of his patients not to try and force himself to fall asleep. The advice worked. Shortly afterwards the man returned to blissful sleep patterns. The term "anti-suggestion" was coined, where the patient is advised, in a non-confrontational way, to do precisely that which he had just been fighting, which only heightened his symptoms. In other words, stop running from the problem, but stare it in the face, accept it, and then solve it.
A similar resolution process is also found in the "utility principle" which deals with a patient's distorted world view. Since humor is the fundamental basis here as well, the following example illustrates the principle: a man thought he was Jesus Christ. It was an extremely difficult case. Milton Erickson pulled the man gently aside and said, "I've heard you have some experience as a carpenter." The patient was taken aback, but then answered in the affirmative. Erickson: "That's just perfect, the clinic has been needing a new bookshelf for a long time. Could you build a nice one for us?" Erickson's question immediately tackled something that a panel of therapists failed to do: as soon as the patient saw himself confronted by the very real problems of engineering and carpentry work, he finally began to doubt if he was really a certain carpenter from Galilee.
This form of therapy, however, is quite old. There's a 1,200 year-old anecdote from the realms of Persian medicine which tells of the great physician, Avijena, doing the exact same thing with a Persian king. The king was anorexic, and refused to eat any food because he considered himself to be a sacred beast, in this case a cow. His refusal to eat made him increasingly weaker, and no physician could help him. At one point, the king commanded that his body be slaughtered and his flesh be fed to his people. Avijena was summoned to the palace. Wearing a butcher's apron, he walked around the palace yelling, "Where is this cow that I'm here to slaughter?"
When the doctor was led to the disturbed ruler, he lifted his sword as if he was going to chop the head off the "cow." But then he stopped himself, and said, "How can I slaughter such an emaciated cow? This beast needs some meat on him!" - The Persian text concludes "…and the king lowed in ecstasy." The king began to eat again - nourishing both his body and his soul.
The one application of humor in psychotherapy with the greatest impact was brought forth in the '70s by social worker Frank Ferelly with his "provocative therapy". It turns a plethora of widely-held therapeutic practices on their head. The patient is made to laugh at himself when he is shown his own self-destructive thinking and behavior patterns through at times absurd distortions. The objective in doing so is to force him out of his own self-perception of being a victim, to mobilize and strengthen his sense of self-responsibility, and thereby give him the chance to get his life back in his own hands.
Elenore Höfner, from the German Institute for Provocative Therapy, expresses criticism towards traditional psychotherapy. To her, the therapist "cajoles" like a voice from above, making him aloof and unapproachable, and entrenching the role of victim for the patient. "This behavior is very powerful, because through it, you can tyrannize your entire surroundings. As a therapist, I had to blather back whatever the patient said. Then all the emotional baggage comes out, and that does nothing for either him or me. I was not allowed to say anything to him; he has to come to the solution on his own, and I was only there to listen. By doing so, I only added to his problems."
This imposed non-responsiveness, this mask-like "stand back and observe" on the part of the therapist, to Höfner, is to blame for the burn-out and suicide rates among psychotherapists being higher than in any other profession. It's different with provocative therapy. "Here, I can react spontaneously; I don't have to just tolerate everything till I'm blue in the face. I can show the patient what affect he has on others. I have to exaggerate, provoke, so that he can see and acknowledge his idée fixe." Sometimes it takes a lot to do this, because "playing the victim is pervasive among patients. It is a quaint little exercise of navel-gazing. But eventually you have to give it up if you want to get rid of your problems."
Humor should not be confused with Schadenfreude. Elenore Höfner calls humor "superior wisdom." "Humor is when we can see ourselves as others see us. This makes it possible to take yourself less seriously. I am certain that if someone can laugh at themselves, that someone is free."
Patients in psychotherapy no longer have this freedom. They are blocked, at a standstill. Everything revolves around their own little belly button. Provocative therapy hacks away at this skewed perspective on the world by twisting around the patient's subjective point of view and reflecting its distortions back at him. Höfner calls it a "loving caricature of someone else's world." "The word 'loving' is the most important. We are completely impertinent with the patient, and that only happens if I really like him and believe in him - which I would of course never admit to him. If I am completely insensitive and mow the patient down like a truck, I will break him."