Laughing With the Pope for Mental Health

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Laughter: the best medicine?

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PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS

Did you hear the one about the Pope and the comedians? It was no joke!

The New York Times headline on June 14 proclaimed: “Stephen Colbert and Whoopi Goldberg Met the Pope in the Vatican. No Joke.”1 Pope Francis met with over a hundred humor entertainers to “establish a link” with the Roman Catholic Church. He praised them for using laughter to get people to think critically in difficult times. He pointed out that sometimes he was their target, but he is also known for joking about his own foibles, quipping that the best remedy for an ailing knee is tequila!

As the Pope said, it is thought that humor can be a powerful antidote to stress. Research is now confirming that.2 Humor seems to activate many areas of the brain at once: the motor, emotional, cognitive, and social processing, as well as the levels of serotonin. The confirmed benefits include:

  • Social bonding
  • Creative thinking
  • To keep from crying
  • Improving mood
  • Relieving pain

Laughter can be planned or learned, a sort of home play. Watching a comedy can work. You can practice laughing, such as laughing yoga of forced laughter.

There are some potential drawbacks of laughter, however. The humor can seem inappropriate; sometimes that can be a sign of early of dementia. As Freud noted, humor in jokes can express too thinly disguised anger or sexuality. Every culture does not find the same things funny. Some individuals are not comfortable with being the target of humor.

Those humor benefits and drawbacks are present in clinical situations, too. In psychotherapy, attempts at humor by the clinician must be done with utmost sensitivity to avoid the patient feeling shamed.3 It has to be individualized.

On the whole, laughter can be counted as a social psychoexmemplary because it enhances social bonding and reduces stress, but best when it is not at the expense of others.

Let’s end with the blessing that Pope Francis gave the audience of master humorists:

“Continue to cheer people up, especially those who have the hardest time looking at life with hope. Help us, with a smile, to see reality with its contradictions, and to dream of a better world.”

In other words, comedians as social therapists.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry and is now in retirement and retirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.

References

  1. Povoledo E. Stephen Colbert and Whoopi Goldberg met the Pope in the Vatican. No joke. The New York Times. June 14, 2024. Accessed June 18, 2024. https://www.nytimes.com/2024/06/14/world/europe/pope-francis-comedians-vatican.html
  2. Gibson J. An Introduction to the Psychology of Humor. Routledge; 2019.
  3. Valentine L, Gabbard G. Can the use of humor in psychotherapy be taught? Acad Psychiatry. 2014;38(1):75-81.
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