Probing Question: Can laughter help people heal?

woman and child laughing
J. Soltren Photography

Knock knock.

Who's there?

Boo.

Boo who?

Well, you don't have to cry about it!!

Come on—don't you feel just a little bit better? Intuitively, we know that laughter is healthy, and references to the healing power of a positive attitude go back as far as the Old Testament. As it says in Proverbs, "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones."

Modern research has attempted to explain how and why. According to researchers at California's Loma Linda University, laughter reduces blood levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and other substances, and boosts the immune system by increasing the antibody immunoglobin A and natural killer cells that attack virus and tumor cells, while activating T-cells.

Not only does humor boost our immunity, it can also be a lifeline for people suffering from depression and other mental illnesses, believes William Klinger. "I look at humor as a kind of lubricant to life," he says. "No matter where our physical, spiritual and emotional life is, humor keeps everything balanced."

Klinger, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine, uses humor as a therapeutic tool in individual and group counseling sessions. He also speaks frequently to people, often caregivers, about how to help heal with laughter and how to lighten up to benefit health.

Living with an impaired sense of humor is like trying to watch a 3-D movie without 3-D glasses, he says. Nothing looks right. But a good sense of humor means "you end up seeing yourself more clearly. You see the room more clearly. You see that it's not worth getting so bent out of shape about so many things." Depression is not just like wearing the wrong glasses, he suggests, but like trying to see clearly through Vaseline smeared all over the lenses.

Klinger became interested in the link between humor and healing in the early 1990s, when he realized that people with emotional challenges and depression often lacked a healthy sense of humor. "Clinical depression robs you of who you are and the gifts you have, including your sense of humor," says Klinger.

As a certified therapeutic recreation specialist, he has found that the use of humor, music, and movement, along with medication and psychotherapy, are helpful in treating clinically depressed patients.

What is a therapy session with Klinger like? He says that he frequently shows patients short funny bits like brief clips of comics performing, shares a funny newspaper clipping or tells a joke. The patient will often laugh—and laughing sometimes leads to talking about what life was like when he or she wasn't depressed, says Klinger. Also, laughing gives the patient some much-needed hope, he notes.

"People do rediscover their senses of humor in these groups," says Klinger. "People like things that help make sense of their lives. Showing others making light of what they're going through helps patients work through their own challenges."

But—like telling a good joke—timing is everything. To be helpful, the use of humor requires caution and sensitivity, says Klinger. The trick is to help patients laugh off the small stuff while always taking their concerns and conditions seriously. The joke can never be on the patient, because only people with the healthiest senses of humor can laugh at themselves. In time, as patients heal, they often are able to laugh at themselves again, says Klinger.

The safest jests are those that show the absurdity in life, including simple practical jokes. "I was still laughing hours after discovering that my jogging buddy booby-trapped my running pants so that I was dragging several feet of toilet paper behind me out the door and into the elevator!" Klinger recalls.

Like Patch Adams, the offbeat M.D. and professional clown whose life inspired the eponymous 1998 movie, Klinger has been known to wear bizarre outfits with his doctor's coat, carry a Fisher Price doctor's bag and walk into a patient's room blowing bubbles. He laughs off the association between his family name and Corporal Maxwell Klinger, the TV character who dresses as a woman to escape the Army in M*A*S*H, the classic '70s television series about the Korean War.

Just as M*A*S*H didn't discount the seriousness of war, but used humor to show how people coped with it, the real-life Klinger's antics are always aimed at healing others from life's pain. He has mastered the sense of perspective that humor guru C.W. Metcalf spoke of when he said that a sense of humor "allows you to take yourself lightly, even though you take your work in life seriously."

William Klinger, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine. He teaches a humor in education program, "LAUGH: Learning Augmented Utilizing Good Humor" in the College of Medicine's continuing education program. Klinger can be reached at wklinger@psu.edu.

Last Updated May 21, 2007