“Sometimes, doctor, I wish I could just wave a magic wand and make all my problems disappear.” Before the patient has reached the end of the sentence, Dr. Steven Sultanoff, a licensed psychologist and therapeutic humorist, has reached behind his desk and drawn out a twelve-inch, black magician’s wand. He holds it up in the air and waves it with dramatic flair.
For a second, the client’s eyes go as wide as saucers. Has he gone crazy? Then, the giggles start to come in short bursts until they develop into a rolling boil of hearty laughter. “I know. I get it,” says the client. “It is awfully silly, isn’t it?”
For as long as anyone can remember, the age-old phrase “Laughter is the best medicine” has been tossed out as a catchall piece of advice, encouragement, and comfort. But it is hardly something the local pharmacy is selling over the counter. “Take three times a day with a meal and don’t forget to laugh.” Recent psychological research, however, has brought new status to this simple cliché. Perhaps laughter really can be an effective prescription for mental health.
Sultanoff is an adjunct professor of psychology at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology who, in addition to the magic wand, also keeps a clown nose, a watch that runs backwards, and juggling balls in his office—just in case. To an outsider, it might all sound a little more Barnum & Bailey Circus than therapeutic intervention, but Sultanoff is quick to explain that his work requires a high level of skill and sophistication. Cognitive therapy has four targets, he explains—feelings, behaviors, thoughts, and biochemistry. Therapists try to help clients change how they feel, what they do, and how they think. “If someone is depressed, it affects all of these areas,” says Sultanoff. “Humor is extremely powerful.”
As some studies have demonstrated, when people experience humor, they have a reduction in stress and a strengthened immune system. They feel more relaxed and often physically better because laughter stimulates the cardiovascular, muscular, and skeletal parts of the human body. “When you experience mirth, or a positive emotional response to humor, the other distressing emotions disappear,” Sultanoff says. “When you laugh, it affects you physiologically; when you experience mirth, it affects you emotionally; and when you exercise your wit, it affects you cognitively—humor transforms all three.”
In treatment with clients who struggle with panic attacks and phobias, Sultanoff often instructs them to visualize a time in which they laughed so hard that it brought tears to their eyes. “Even as they tell me their story, the client’s scale of anxiety goes down as the session progresses.”
In another situation, Sultanoff used humor to help a couple that was struggling with the husband’s grouchy attitude in the mornings. “I handed him a prop that I call ‘mental floss,'” Sultanoff begins. It is a plastic tube that goes from ear to ear, much like the joke arrows people wear to give the illusion of an arrow going through their head, and there is a string that appears to go in one ear and out the other. “I instructed the husband that for one week he should start each day by getting ready, taking a shower, brushing his teeth, and then ‘flossing’ in front of the mirror.” The approach worked.
While humor and creativity are as much a part of Sultanoff’s personality as his profession, most of his clients know him only as a traditional psychotherapist. “I do not advertise myself to be a humor therapist. I simply use humor as a tool, as a part of the bigger picture.”
Sultanoff has made presentations on the topic of humor therapy to national audiences at hospitals, school districts, community agencies, and corporations, most of whom he leaves rolling in the aisles. However, his toughest audience, the group that Sultanoff says still has a long way to go in understanding how to fully integrate humor into their work, still remains psychologists.