Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.
Jung and the Value of Humor
A monk once asked the Master: “Has a dog a Buddha nature too?” Whereupon the Master replied, “Woof!”
I was once the guest of a pretty stiff and solemn New England family of a rather terrifying respectability. It felt almost like home. (There are very conservative and highly respectable folk in Switzerland, too. We might even better the American record in this respect.) There were Negro servants waiting at table….A solemnity brooded over the meal for which I could see no reason, … At all events nobody laughed. Everyone was just too nice and too polite. Eventually I could stand it no longer, and I began to crack jokes for better or worse. These were greeted with condensing smiles. But I could not arouse that hearty and generous American laugh which I love and admire. “Well,” I thought, “Indian blood, wooden faces, camouflaged Mongols, why not try some Chinese on them?” So I came to my last story, really a good one—and no sooner had I finished than right behind my chair an enormous avalanche of laughter broke loose. It was the Negro servant, and it was the real American laughter, that grand, unrestrained, unsophisticated laughter revealing rows of teeth, tongue, palate, everything, … How I loved that African brother.
Schopenhauer once said that the sense of humor is the only divine quality in humans. Jung often quoted this saying. Once he told me that he made it a great point to see if his patients had a sense of humor. People who have no sense of humor are very difficult to treat, and if they are psychotic they are practically incurable. On the other hand, even severely psychotic people sometimes have a sense of humor. Of those, Jung would say, “Oh, take them, they have such a sense of humor. You might not cure them, but you can keep them afloat.
Once I took such a case, and whenever she showed signs of going off into a psychotic episode, I let myself sink back in the unconscious and it would give me the idea of some obscene joke. It had to be terribly vulgar, but when I merrily told it she would always laugh and become normal again…. I could bring her back from the underworld in that way; it was absolutely saving. I know Barbara Hannah once didn’t want to take on a crazy old schizophrenic, but Jung said, “Oh, for God’s sake, take her! She’s so funny. That is her redeeming quality.”
von Franz (1997)
Anyone who spent any amount of time with Jung quickly came to realize he had a hearty sense of humor and a huge “belly laugh,” and, as the above quotes indicate, he recognized the therapeutic value of laughter and humor. He was also not above using humor to puncture the personas of “stuffed shirts,” as he did in his 1936 trip to America, when he was entertained by some “Boston Brahmins” who were very full of themselves.
Jung put a premium on a sense of humor from his personal experience treating hundreds of patients: he saw the many benefits of humor, beyond redeeming the psychotic from the underworld, as Marie-Louise von Franz noted in her Archetypal Patterns in Fairy Tales. Recent scientific studies of the benefits of humor have supported Jung’s belief in the importance of a sense of humor. What are some of these benefits?
Some Physical Benefits of Humor and Laughter
Laughter has been shown in clinical studies to reduce stress and ease muscle tension. By increasing dopamine it fosters relaxation, and by increasing the output of endorphins, it can provide pain relief. A good belly laugh can also reduce the level of cortisol in the blood, while increasing blood flow, helping to protect the heart. Laughing can also boost the immune system by increasing lymphocyte blastogenesis, making us less likely to get sick. “Regular hilarity” promotes restful sleep and a good daily “laughsitive” increases the oxygen level in the blood and reduces cellular decay. A steady diet of daily laughter can bring the body back into balance—something Jung always appreciated, given his concern about “one-sidedness.”
Some Psychological Benefits of Humor and Laughter
The opening quotes noted how Jung and his students were able to bring their patients back from psychotic states through funny jokes. When humor can work in such serious situations, it is not surprising that it has psychological benefits in more normal situations. For example, laughter can reduce anxiety and increase psychological resilience, allowing us to get through some of the tough times involved in the individuation process. Humor can also counteract depression and help shift our perspective from a focus on doom and gloom to seeing the sunnier side of a situation. If we are experiencing psychosomatic problems, laughing can alleviate the symptoms, and in those times when we confront the massa confusa, and it seems overwhelming, a good belly laugh can create some psychological distance, so the “mass” doesn’t seem quite so daunting.
Some Cognitive Benefits of Humor and Laughter
A steady diet of laughter can also help our minds work better. Besides improving mood, laughing improves brain functioning, memory, alertness and problem-solving ability. By shifting our perspective, humor also helps us see situations from different perspectives, and this can help us to be more creative. At a time in our society when a premium is put on innovation and the “new new thing,” humor can provide a major boost to our work life in getting us to think “outside the box,” even while it helps us stay grounded in practical reality.
Some Emotional Benefits of Humor and Laughter
Joking and laughing can replace despair with hope and pessimism with optimism, as it tends to neutralize negative emotions. In helping us to recharge, humor provides us with courage and strength to persevere in the difficult work of inner growth. It lightens our burdens, adding joy and zest to life, while it helps us find new sources of meaning and purpose in living. All these are intrapersonal benefits.
There are also an array of interpersonal benefits of humor. For example, laughing can help to defuse conflict in situations of strained relationships. An atmosphere of humor enhances teamwork and promotes bonding among coworkers. On the dating scene, the ability to laugh helps to enhance personal attractiveness and warm up a relationship. Here at the Jungian Center, where a major concern is to provide an environment of warmth and safety, humor plays a key role.
Jung understood that a well-timed joke can be a powerful trigger in shifting the energy of a group, and we see this often in our classes here. One vivid example from a recent class comes to mind: At one point in our “Honing Your High Sense Perception” workshop participants are given the assignment to apply the technique for clairaudience to tell a complete stranger about his/her early home, family and environment. There is, of course, no way the student could know this using the logical, rational mind, and so frowns of consternation quickly appear on faces. I pause, and then acknowledge their feelings, saying “Now the room is dripping with skepticism.” Reaction? Peals of laughter, the tension of skepticism broken, and the group partners up to accomplish the assignment.
Some Spiritual Benefits of Humor and Laughter
Finally Jung knew there are a host of spiritual benefits in laughter. As the opening quote noted, laughter can break through persona stuff, helping us to live more authentically, in touch with our true nature. It can foster individuation as we come to appreciate how each person is unique in his/her sense of humor, and we discover our own special brand of humor.
I have found that many of my students are surprised to discover the punning nature of the psyche: Our souls want us to laugh and to appreciate the lighter side of things. I recall one example of many of my psyche’s punning: I had been told to give up teaching, and this was very hard to hear, as it is my true vocation. So I wrote in my dream journal, asking if I would ever return to teaching. That night I had a very vivid dream of a school—of fish! My psyche was providing me with reassurance that I would return to teaching, but it would have to do with the unconscious. And so it has.
How to Bring More Laughter into Life
Upping your daily intake of laughter is easier if you have a certain orientation to living—not solemn, less serious, more spontaneous. It helps to get out of your head and into your true feelings, letting go of defenses. Forget judgments, criticism and doubts, and count your blessings. Try to find the humor (or the ridiculousness) in situations that seem grim: maybe they won’t seem so dire if you can see them from another perspective. With such a shift you are more likely to be open to trying the techniques below:
There are two basic types of ways to bring more humor into your life: ways that cost money and ways that are free. Some of the ways that involve spending money include : watching funny shows on TV (if your area can’t get the free broadcast television signals); going to funny movies or using Netfliks to see comedies; reading the funny pages of a newspaper; going to a comedy club; and checking out the cartoons in magazines like New Yorker or the comic sections of Reader’s Digest.
Some free methods to get your daily “laughsitive” include : seeking out and spending time around funny people (their humor rubs off); sharing jokes with another person; playing with a pet; goofing around with children; intentionally doing silly things; and practicing smiling. One of my favorite free ways to get a good “laughsitive” is to go to the local supermarket, to their greeting card section, and read all the funny cards. I don’t hesitate to laugh as I stand there. In some cases I laugh until the tears run down my face (being careful not to get any on the cards). This method always works for me, in shifting my mood if I am sad, boosting me up if I feel tired, giving me a better outlook on the future. It also tends to attract crowds, so often I wind up laughing with others as they read the cards.
Were Jung still with us on the physical plane, I think he would agree with “Swami Beyondananda” in his prescription to get a daily “laughsitive” to ensure “regular hilarity.” Just as our bodies need to take in food and eliminate waste, so our spirits need to be revitalized with regular intake of laughter and mirth and clear out worry and anxiety. Even “gallows” humor can take the edge off difficulties, and a hearty belly laugh—the full-throated response Jung so appreciated in Americans—can have a curative power greater than many pills and potions.
Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.
Courthion, Pierre (1977), “A Wartime Interview,” Jung Speaking, eds. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Cousins, Norman (1979), Anatomy of an Illness. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Jung, C.G. (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Marano, Hara E. (2003), “The Benefits of Laughter,” Psychology Today (April 29, 2003).
von Franz, Marie-Louise (1997), Archetypal Patterns in Fairy Tales. Toronto: Inner City Press.
 Collected Works 11, ¶894. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 CW 10, ¶950.
 von Franz (1997), 183-184.
 Courthion (1977), 143.
 Bair (2003), 421.
 von Franz (1997), 183-184.
 “Regular hilarity” and “laughsitive” are two terms I got from a wonderful piece “Ten Guidelines for Enlightenment” by “Swami Beyondananda,” aka Steve Bhaerman; see his Web site for information on him and his work: www.wakeuplaughing.com
 CW 10, ¶175.
 The massa confuse is a term in alchemy referring to the “confused,” or undifferentiated mess of feelings, complexes, intuitions and anxieties that often accompany the beginning of the work of individuation or a new phase within it.
 This is the title of a 1999 book by Michael J. Lewis, published by W.W. Norton & Co.
 Marano (2003).
 By “safety” I don’t mean physical safety, which we certainly provide, but the more subtle forms of emotional and psychological safety that relate to the absence of evaluation, criticism, judgment and persona posturing.
 These are two of my favorite ways to get a laughsitive.
Aka Steve Bhaerman; see note 10 above for his Web site.
CW 10, ¶950
 See, e.g. the experience of Norman Cousins who, in 1964, was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. The doctors had no cure, so Cousins checked into a hotel and put himself on a daily diet of funny movies. He cured himself and recounted his experience in Anatomy of an Illness; Cousins (1979).