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Humor in Psychotherapy

written by Laura L.C. Johnson 25 June 2009

Laura L.C. Johnson, MA, MBA, LMFT, LPCC is a Cognitive Behavior Therapist and the founder and executive director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center of Silicon Valley and Sacramento Valley. She integrates positive psychology with cognitive behavior therapy and schema therapy, which have been shown to be effective for a wide variety of problems in hundreds of studies. Her clients learn skills to build positive emotions, optimism, and resilience while decreasing unhelpful thinking, behaviors, and emotions. Full bio. Laura's articles are here.

It is my belief, you cannot deal with the serious things in the world unless you understand the most amusing. Winston Churchill

Laughing Clown

Laughing Clown

I enjoy humor even though I’ve never been much of a joke teller. I am included in the 98% of people who say they can’t tell a joke because they don’t remember them. Looking back on my sessions with clients, I notice that I find humor and laughter refreshing and it helps strengthen the bond I feel with my clients. Recently after an intake with a new client, my supervisor said, “I heard a lot of laughter in your office. Must have been a good session.” Sometimes my clients bring humor into the session, lightly poking fun at themselves. Other times, I use gentle humor to help bring awareness to an issue with which they’ve been struggling.

Humor is Helpful

According to the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor www.aath.org , humor is “any intervention that promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful discovery, expression or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life’s situations.” Goldin and Bordan, leaders in the counseling field, indicate they both plan to use humor as well as use it spontaneously.

Pieces of Me?

Pieces of Me?

Humor can be useful in therapy in two ways – as an assessment tool and as a therapeutic tool (Reynes & Allen, 1987, Goldin & Bordan, 1999, 2006) to:

  • Strengthen the rapport between the client and counselor
  • Facilitate communication, keep the client focused and make the counseling process more interesting
  • Assess the client’s degree of psychological functioning
  • Enable the client to change to a more useful perspective by seeing the world’s absurdities
  • Offer the client a less painful perspective of a painful problem
  • Add to the client’s social repertoire and coping tools
  • Reduce stress and tension during the therapy session

Timing is Everything

“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.” – Joe Ancis

Humor must be used properly to be most effective. If humor is used too soon, the counselor might be viewed as someone who is insensitive to the client’s concerns. Goldin and Bordan explain that humor can be inappropriate in counseling under certain conditions:

  • When it is experienced as disrespectful or could offend the client
  • When it makes a client feel they are not being taken seriously
  • When it is used to frequently and becomes boring
  • When the counselor uses it to avoid dealing with client anxieties
  • When a client views it as irrelevant to his or her reasons for being in counseling
  • When it is inappropriately timed

Ways To Use Humor with Clients

There are many ways to use humor in counseling without needing to be a comedian. One of the key ingredients for humor is the ability to be childlike (Godfrey, 2004). Specifically, a counselor, coach or other healing professional could:



  • Ask your client, “How would an 8 year old see this situation?” to help your client reframe the issue into a less troublesome perspective
  • Encourage your client to keep a humor journal every night or once a week recalling things that made them laugh or an amusing incident that happened that day
  • Encourage your clients to watch funny films , read joke books and attend comedy shows
  • Ask your clients to share an amusing anecdote or observation during the session
  • Give the client a cartoon that touches on the problem in a more playful way
  • Set up your office with humorous stimuli such as books, calendars, cartoons, props and posters to improve the wait and cheer up your clients
  • Write a laughter prescription asking your client to read their favorite comic strip every morning with coffee
  • Ask your client to develop a Humor First Aid Kit including things that make her laugh or bring a smile to her face
  • Start a “smiles-to-go” jar filled with humorous quotes and anecdotes that clients can take when they arrive or leave your office

Frogs in Shoes

Frogs in Shoes

Develop Your Own Sense of Humor

Humor can be powerful medicine but only if it is a regular part of one’s life.

In order to share the lighter side of life with others, it helps if you actively seek out things that make you laugh.


Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor

Godfrey, J.R. (2004). Toward optimal health: The experts discuss therapeutic humor. Journal of Women’s Health, 13, 474-479.

Goldin, E. & Bordan, B. (1999). The use of humor in counseling: The laughing cure. Journal of Counseling & Development, 77, 405-410.

Goldin, E., Bordan, B., Araoz, D.L., Gladding, S.T., Kaplan, D., Krumboltz, J. & Lazarus, A. (2006). Humor in counseling: Leader perspectives. Journal of Counseling & Development, 84, 397-404.

McGuire, P. (1999). More psychologists are finding that discrete uses of humor promote healing in their patients. APA Monitor, 30 (3).

Reynes, R.L. & Allen, A. (1987). Humor in psychotherapy: A view. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 61, 260-270.

Funny Clown courtesy of Andrea Fregnani
Pieces of me courtesy of CarbonNYC
Playfulness courtesy of cliff1066
IF … a princess kisses both of us courtesy of kthypryn

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Senia 25 June 2009 - 11:05 am


What a great article. Emiliya will love reading it – she does laughter yoga and studies humor a lot.

I like your suggestions for how to infuse humor – especially the 8-year-old. Which of those is your own favorite suggestion to use?

Kathryn, these are beautiful images… textured, rich.


Laura 25 June 2009 - 11:47 am

Hi Senia,

Thank you! I had fun researching and writing this article. I love cartoons that poke fun at therapy. As a result of writing this article, I have started a scrap book of humorous cartoons that I can use with clients. I also like the “smiles-to-go” jar. Reminds me of a fortune cookie – except you can be surprised with a humorous message. Thanks also to Denise for editing and for Kathryn for finding the images.

Best, Laura

Laurina 19 May 2014 - 2:05 pm

Well good afternoon!!

First off.. I love your article! It brings to mind so many avenues of therapy that I firmly believe are underutilized. I was wondering however, I am doing a research paper on developing my own style of counseling, borrowing from various theories and methods. I am developing a bit of a love affair with Dr Albert Ellis, finding his direction to not only be absolutely refreshing, but also admirably direct. This style of counseling is categorized under Cognitive Behavior Therapy, am I right? If I may be so bold, how would you introduce humour into the counseling process?

I relish any direction you may take me in,

Thank you so much for your potential assistance!


Laura L.C. Johnson 19 May 2014 - 2:40 pm

Hi Laurina,

Yes, Albert Ellis is one of the “fathers” of cognitive behavior therapy along with Aaron Beck. In terms of introducing humor into therapy, I would suggest being genuine and use whatever your natural style of humor is with your clients (assuming it’s not sarcastic or obscene, that is.). Thanks for your comments.



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