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Humor in psychiatric healing

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Abstract

The oft-quoted aphorism that “laughter is the best medicine” is examined. Specifically, three big drops in the shower of claims regarding the benefits of humor in treating physical and mental disorders are evaluated. First, studies of the effects of mirth and laughter on the physiology of the body reveal both good and bad news. The meager evidence of the salutary effects of positive emotions on the cardiovascular, respiratory, immune and neuroendocrine systems, though apparently supportable on more or less scientific, rational and subjective grounds, needs much better verification from more extensive, replicable, and empirical research. Second, despite numerous claims, in the context of behavioral or psychosomatic medicine, that a joyful, optimistic, or humorous attitude can render a salubrious effect, almost to the extent of preventing illness and curing physical disease, the jury is still out and issuing dire warnings regarding too ready acceptance of this largely anecdotal evidence. Much careful “clinical trial” research needs to be mounted to determine the conditions under which humor works best, if at all. The type of patient, the kind of humor, the type and severity of illness, the psychosocial contexts—all of these factors should be considered. Third, the infusion of humor into psychotherapy is great news for some therapists and awful neww for others. A number of more balanced approaches point up the probability that when mirth is incorporated into therapy judiciously, appropriately, and meaningfully it can be of value.

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Saper, B. Humor in psychiatric healing. Psych Quart 59, 306–319 (1988). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01064921

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