July Blog on Laughter

12 July 2016


As far as I know the major research on laughter in therapy was conducted by that great theorist of the humanistic approach, the late Alvin Mahrer (1985). In his 1996 book he says: “Experiential therapists may not be wildly emotional of feeling in their actual lives. They may not be screamers or hard laughers. But in the session, they must be able to have strong feeling. They must be more open than the patient to strong feeling, and to just about any kind of strong feeling… You must allow yourself to undergo pain, hurt, turmoil, anguish, all kinds of bad feelings. In the same way, you must be able to undergo strong good feelings. You must be skilled in undergoing scenes, moments, opportunities of absolute silliness, whimsy, laughter, clowning, rollicking, giggling, and chuckling.” p.175 (This injunction is followed by no less than twelve references to the research literature, including the classic study of 1984 by Mahrer and his wife.)
Before that there was the amazing work of Eileen Walkenstein, who had a completely fresh and unboundaried approach to therapy – full of real humour and fun.
Not well enough known or referred to is the exciting work of Frank Farrelly (Farrelly & Brandsma (1974) which is still being carried on in London by Brian Kaplan. This approach relies a great deal on being open to the incongruous, the quirky, the unexpected. Brian even creates badges for his clients to wear, with humorous references to their supposed problems.
It seems to me that this is a serious challenge to therapists here, whatever their labels or persuasions. Are we bringing into the session the full range of our own capabilities, or are we making a quite restricted choice of what to reveal? Are we allowing our full range of feelings to come into the session, and encouraging the client to do the same? Are we noticing the incongruous and the quirky, the surprising and the funny, and allowing it into the session?

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