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Counselor's Corner: The Therapeutic Benefits of Humor in Substance Use Disorder Counseling

March 12, 2021


Humor can be utilized in substance use disorder counseling to help reduce client resistance, increase rapport between counselor and client, and help facilitate recovery. Some of the therapeutic benefits of humor in substance use disorders counseling include:

Laughter as the great equalizer. Maya Angelou told Oprah Winfrey that only equals laugh with each other. Many clients with substance use disorder enter counseling feeling that they have failed, which often leads to defensiveness. Laughter can be instrumental in decreasing that defensiveness.

Laughter can bring the idealized counselor back to life. It is particularly helpful for counselors to occasionally tell humorous stories about mistakes they have made in their own lives. This can help clients be less guarded about their own life mistakes.

Laughter can decrease resistance to counseling. It has been said that the shortest distance between two people is a good laugh.

Laughter can also:

  • Decrease cross-cultural tension in counseling. It is hard to laugh and hate at the same time.
  • Facilitate bonding between counselors and clients.
  • Facilitate self-disclosure by creating a friendly environment.
  • Allow clients relief from painful experiences.
  • Decrease anxiety about taboo subjects.
  • Decrease stress and anxiety in counseling

Laughter can make the therapeutic hour seem quicker. Many clients report a great deal of boredom in early recovery. Therapy is more enjoyable when it moves quickly. Laughter helps!

How To Utilize Humor in Substance use disorders Counseling

Many counselors agree that the best humor by counselors is thoughtfully spontaneous, well-timed, and takes into consideration who the client is. The goals should be to reduce client tension, increase client comfort, and/or help the client gain insight. The primary purpose of humor is to help the client. Approaches include:

  • Planned spontaneity. The counselor says something funny that they were not planning to say.
  • Exaggerations. Making a situation seem bigger that it actually is. As clients see humor in these situations, they may begin to relax and put things in proper perspective.
  • Making fun of yourself.
  • Repeating a funny line made by the client
  • Role plays and skits
  • Using tools such as movie clips, cartoons, anecdotes, signs, prompts, etc. 
  • Using art 

Take the client's funny bone history

Ask questions such as: 

  • “What makes you laugh?”
  • “Do you like to hear jokes or tell jokes?”
  • “What kind of humor do you find unpleasant?”
  • “What kinds of things make other people laugh that are not funny to you?”
  • “What are the funniest movies you have ever seen?”
  • “Who are your funniest comedians?”

Five Types of Inappropriate Humor

There are types of humor that can be harmful to clients and should be avoided. They include:

  • Laughing at clients.
  • Cheap shots, i.e., making fun of U.S. presidents the way late-night comedians do.
  • Putting down clients.
  • Sarcasm directed toward the client.
  • Racist and sexist jokes


Many readers may be wondering, “How do I become funnier as a therapist?” Norman Cousins suggests listening to tapes of your favorite comics, watching comedies (with your friends or your cat), spending time with your children or grandchildren (children laugh 400 times more frequently than adults). Abraham Maslow suggests that we should strive for self-actualization. He indicates that individuals who move toward self-actualization take things and themselves less seriously, the end result being that we have a greater sense of humor.

View a recording of Mark's webinar, The Therapeutic Benefits of Humor in Substance Use Disorder Counseling

Smiling therapist
Mark A. Sanders, LCSW, CADC; Illinois State Program Manager, Great Lakes ATTC, MHTTC, and PTTC
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