Health & Wellness

Sharpening Your Comic Vision: Reaping the Benefits of Therapeutic Humor

By Steven M. Sultanoff, Ph.D.
Just as our physical immune system protects us from toxins in our environment, our “psychological immune system” protects us from the toxins generated from psychological stressors we experience in the world around us. Research has shown that humor strengthens both our physical and psychological immune systems; it helps to sustain the psychological immune system by altering how we feel, think, and behave.
Cognitive Benefits
Humor helps break rigid thinking resulting in our ability to perceive the world more “realistically” and without distortions. Our emotional state is greatly influenced by our perception of the events around us. A stressor is not inherently stressful. The intensity of stress we experience is directly related to the way in which we perceive the stressor.
Shakespeare stated, “Nothing is good or bad. It is thinking that makes it so.” Because one person’s view of a particular stressor influences the effect of that stressor, a variety of people experiencing the same stressor may have vastly different reactions, depending on the meaning they place on the stressor. 
For example, someone who feels excessive anger often believes that the world must treat him “fairly,” and when it does not treat him so, he becomes angry. Humor helps adjust this particular belief system by providing a more realistic perspective on an “unfair world.”
Someone who experiences excessive anxiety often believes that she must perform well to be accepted or valued. When an environmental stressor challenges her performance, she experiences anxiety. 
Humor, again, can provide a clearer perspective, placing her “performance” in a healthier relation to the specific environment so that the individual changes her thinking pattern from “I must perform to be okay” to “I would like to perform well, but I’m okay even when I don’t do as well as I hoped.”
Emotional Benefits
Humor not only relieves distressful feelings, but it also helps teach us that we have the ability to “manage” our emotional states. One can’t experience distressing emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression, guilt, or resentment and experience humor at the same time. You may have heard someone who is very angry say, “Don’t make me laugh. I want to be angry.” You cannot maintain a high level of anger and laugh at the same time.
When I asked one of my clients (who was very “dedicated” to her depression) what upset her about my humorous interventions, she replied, “When you make me laugh, I do not feel depressed.” My humor momentarily relieved some of her depression, which she seemed committed to maintaining! Humor and distressful emotions cannot occupy the same emotional/psychological space.
Since the experience of humor affects our emotions, we can learn to manage our emotional distress through humor. While humorous interventions may not remove chronic depression, they can – for a few moments, at least – relieve emotional upset, teaching us experientially that depression and other distressing emotions can be lessened or temporarily relieved when we experience humor.
Understanding the Elements of Humor
We receive humor as a combination of wit (the cognitive experience), mirth (the emotional experience), and laughter (the physiological experience). While laughter is readily observed as a result of a humorous experience, wit and mirth are internal and not as obvious to others. However, a sense of humor is comprised of a combination of these components. Just because someone does not laugh does not mean that they lack a sense of humor. They may be experiencing wit or mirth but not laughter.
Wit occurs when we “appreciate” humor. It is the liking, understanding, and the “getting it” that we experience as humorous. The health benefit of wit lies in its ability to help us break rigid mindsets that are common among those of us who experience a great deal of distress such as depression, anxiety, and anger.  Wit helps us to see the world with perspective and thus reduces the impact of the stressors around us. Exaggeration is an example of one type of humor that helps break rigid thinking patterns and provides perspective.
Mirth is the emotional experience of humor consisting of joy, pleasure, or inner warmth that may occur. Distressing emotions and mirth cannot occupy the same psychological space. As we experience mirth, our inner distresses dissolve and a pleasant sunny spirit takes their place. We know this intuitively, as illustrated by people using humor instinctively to reduce their anxiety or anger.
And, finally, laughter is the physiological reaction to humor. When we laugh we are activated, our muscles contract, our pulse rate and breathing increase, and we begin to lose muscle control.
The good news is that we can reap all the therapeutic benefits of humor by developing our “comic vision” – a way of perceiving the world that allows us to be receptive to the humor around and within us. (For suggestions on how to do so, see the box on the next page.) Heightened receptivity to humor can stimulate our ability to be increasingly interactive with, and even proactive toward, the world around us. In this way we increase our perception of humor – allowing it to help us manage our biochemical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral states. 
As our comic vision expands, we are energized and recharged; our desire and ability to choose activity over inactivity increases. We are more likely to greet and connect with others. And we are more likely to live healthier and happier lives as we maintain our physical and emotional resilience. 
Developing Your Comic Vision: The Fun-da-Mentals
Jest for the Health of It

To create a humorous lifestyle, we must develop our “comic vision.”  Comic vision is the ability to see the humor around us, and the ability to generate humor from within. Increasing our comic vision begins with what we find humorous and expanding our vision from there. For example, if your humor is to appreciate jokes, then learn one joke and tell it well.  Later you can learn another and so on. 
Weave your Web
The internet is a great adventure in developing a comic vision. You can visit humor sites or join a humor mailing list to receive humor daily.
Make a Prop-position
Props are a fun way to add humor to your lifestyle. Carry a clown nose for a week and wear it at least once a day. I blow bubbles from my car while stopped at traffic lights. I also carry Groucho glasses and mental floss to wear in the car.
A Room “wit” a View
Humor to share abounds around us. In a restaurant recently I read a sign that said, “Children left unattended will be towed at the owner’s expense.”  Read and share the humor you discover.
Play with your Mental Blocks
You may read signs and take meanings literally.  For example, at a cashier at the end of a cafeteria line in Las Vegas there was a sign that stated, “We only accept US traveler’s checks.” I turned to the cashier and said, “I guess I will have to put everything back. I only have cash!”  The sign wasn't meant to be funny, but I read it literally and it became funny (at least to me). I then shared my humor with the cashier.
Commit yourself
Start by committing to doing one thing to increase your comic vision. Carry and use a prop, learn and share a joke, e-mail something funny, make fun of yourself, exaggerate, and so on. It is not what is humorous that is important; instead it is what is humorous to you that is significant.
Steven M. Sultanoff, Ph.D, is a psychologist, university professor (Pepperdine), professional speaker, past president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, and internationally recognized expert on therapeutic humor. With nearly 25 years in the therapeutic humor field, he has written many innovative articles, as well as a pioneering chapter on Integrating Humor into Psychotherapy which is published in the psychology textbook Play Therapy with Adults. Dr. Sultanoff has appeared on The Morning Show, STARZ, Lifetime, and PBS and is frequently quoted in publications such as Prevention, USA Today, Men’s Health, and Women’s Health. He provides live therapeutic humor training programs, as well as online humor courses in multimedia formats. His website ( provides a wealth of information on therapeutic humor as well as a wide range of topical humor.
(Last reviewed 7/2011)