Humour in Recovery

This is the fifth in a series of blogs contributed by our PM clinician Gregory Rennie, who will introduce you to various aspects of addiction and its treatment using psychotherapy.  Gregory provides access to collaborative care with PM psychiatrists via the Psychotherapy Matters Virtual Clinic (PMVC) for his clients.

Recovery is a process which depends on the commitment and attitude of the person and on an effective treatment plan.  For the most part, it is a change in lifestyle which in time improves self-confidence, hope and an optimistic view of the future.

In addiction counselling, the goals which support recovery are the following:

  1.  help manage co-occurring mental health issues such as depression and anxiety
  2. reduce or eliminate the exposure to alcohol and drugs
  3. help to improve work, life and relationships

Research has shown that improving the ‘good times’ in recovery can be beneficial.  Exploring healthy self-reward by involvement in activities that are enjoyable and fun such as hobbies, sports or volunteer work can stimulate healthy and positive chemistry in the brain without using the ‘sledgehammer’ of alcohol and drugs.

“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” –  Charlie Chaplin  

In film terms, a close-up is the view of a scene close to you in space and time. A long-shot is the view of a scene from a considerable distance.  Charlie Chaplin was born in Smethwick, England in 1889 and lived in extreme poverty after his father died of alcoholism. He was then put in an orphanage and workhouse at the age of seven when his mother was institutionalized for mental illness. He experienced tragedy most of us will never see. 1

Later in life, Chaplin became a comedian known for films in which he portrayed a character who was poor and a drifter. He wrote the 1936 instrumental, ‘Smile,’ used at the end of his film ‘Modern Times.’ It inspired lyrics that were added in 1954 and was recorded by Robert Downey Jr. on his 2004 album ‘The Futurist.’ Downey was nominated for an Oscar in 1992 for his film portrayal of the comedian in the film ‘Chaplin.’

Downey is known for his comedic roles. He appeared in comedies ‘Weird Science’, ‘The Pick Up Artist’, ‘Tropic Thunder’ and was a Saturday Night Live regular in 1985. Downey struggled for years with dependency on heroin and spent time in prison. He has been clean since 2001, is now Marvel’s Iron Man and the highest paid actor in Hollywood. He demonstrates his sense of humour in interviews and award shows and often is self-deprecating about his past. 2

There are many stand-up comedians having successful careers using material about their tragic past alcohol and drug abuse. Craig Ferguson, Mark Maron and Mark Lundholm are well known for getting laughs about their past tragedy. There’s a website showcasing comedians in recovery, www.recoverycomedy.com. Mark Lundholm has been on Comedy Central, had a successful stage show, ‘Addicted…A Comedy of Substance’ and was the main speaker at a Narcotics Anonymous convention in April 2015. He has his own website at www.marklundholm.com.

In my experience working with people with addictions, I have found that clients often laugh as they describe tragic moments in their lives and will laugh when a speaker at a meeting describes their past tragedy, especially if they can relate to it.

So, what is it that people will laugh about a tragic event? What is the funny factor?

Research has shown that there is a psychological factor regarding tragedy and comedy.  In the 2013 journal article “The Rise and Fall of Humor: Psychological Distance Modulates Humorous Responses to Tragedy”, the authors examined past research and used a real event, Hurricane Sandy, to determine what is tragedy and what is comedy by examining Twitter posts during and after the event.

Reinforcing what Chaplin said about the ‘long-shot,’ they stated that “psychological distance can play a critical role in shaping humorous responses to tragedy. For example, disgusting things are more amusing when they are fake, seem far away in space and time, or afflict someone else.” 3 What is enough psychological distance?  What is ‘too soon’? For example, stand-up comedian Gilbert Gottfried told a joke about 9/11 a few weeks after it happened and was vilified by the audience and in the press. Ten years later, another comedian, Louis C.K. got laughs from the audience when he told a joke about 9/11.

Using film terms again, a ‘close-up’ or tragedy that is happening right now in front of you can pose a threat although once it is further away from you in space and time, it is less of a threat therefore a ‘long-shot.’ The article explained that, tragedy is funny when “something that threatens a person’s well being, identity, or normative belief structure simultaneously seems okay, safe, or acceptable.” 4  The authors also noted that too much of a psychological distance can affect the funny factor. If the event happened a long time ago, it can lose its humour. A joke about Lincoln’s assassination isn’t that funny anymore or relevant.

Research has shown there is a social and biological factor. In the 2012 article “Laughter Therapy,” that was published in the Journal of Pharmaceutical and Scientific Innovation, the author stated that laughter helps us feel connected and when we laugh “it signals acceptance and positive interactions with others.” 5

There is scientific proof that something happens biologically in the brain when you laugh. It’s interesting to know that the areas of the brain which are involved are also implicated in the disease of chemical dependency. In the brain of someone with an addiction, there is a functional disconnect between two parts of the brain, the limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex.  Is it possible that laughter can be beneficial in the healing process in recovery? The author stated that “laughter is linked with the activation of the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex that produces endorphins. Scientists have shown that parts of the limbic system are involved in laughter. This system is involved in emotions and helps us with functions necessary for humans’ survival.” 6 Endorphins are a built in painkiller for physical and emotional pain. They work similar to opiates like morphine and are released in the brain when we laugh.

For someone in recovery, stress can be a factor in relapse. Laughter can actually reduce stress.  Laughter reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine.  7

The proof that laughter is truly the best medicine is demonstrated by Albert Nerenberg, a Canadian ‘Laughologist.’ What is exciting about Nerenberg’s work is that he has provided laughter group therapy to treatment centres and clients found it beneficial in their recovery. Nerenberg released a documentary on laughter in 2009 and it can be purchased on his website.

So, the funny factor exists. We know that we can benefit from laughter, see the comedy in our tragedy when it has some distance and that it’s therapeutic to crack up. It’s a pain reliever. Charlie Chaplin said “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease of pain.” Have you had your laugh today?

In my experience, it is possible to recover from the impact of chemical dependence/abuse or substance use disorder.

Reference:

1.     Charlie Chaplin: Biography. Retrieved from: www.charliechaplin.com/en/biography/articles

2.     Robert Downey Jr. Vanity Fair article: Retrieved from: http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/09/robert-downey-jr-addiction-children

3.     McGraw, P.A, Williams, L.E, Warren, C. (2013). The Rise and Fall of Humor: Psychological Distance Modulates Humourous Responses to Tragedy. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 20(10): 1-7. Retrieved from: http://spp.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/12/10/1948550613515006

4.     McGraw, P.A, Williams, L.E, Warren, C. (2013). The Rise and Fall of Humor: Psychological Distance Modulates Humourous Responses to Tragedy. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 20(10): 1-7. Retrieved from: http://spp.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/12/10/1948550613515006

5.     Dumbre, S.P. (2012). Laughter Therapy (World Laughter Day – First Sunday of May). Journal of Pharmaceutical and Scientific Innovation , 1(03): 23-24. Retrieved from: http://jpsionline.com/admin/php/uploads/73_pdf.pdf

6.     Dumbre, S.P. (2012). Laughter Therapy (World Laughter Day – First Sunday of May). Journal of Pharmaceutical and Scientific Innovation , 1(03): 23-24. Retrieved from: http://jpsionline.com/admin/php/uploads/73_pdf.pdf

7.     Dumbre, S.P. (2012). Laughter Therapy (World Laughter Day – First Sunday of May). Journal of Pharmaceutical and Scientific Innovation , 1(03): 23-24. Retrieved from: http://jpsionline.com/admin/php/uploads/73_pdf.pdf

8.     Charlie Chaplin quotes. Retrieved from: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/c/charlie_chaplin.html

____________________

The views expressed in these blogs are the author’s own and not necessarily reflective of those of Psychotherapy Matters.  Information provided here and anywhere else on PsychotherapyMatters.com is for learning purposes only and should not be used to guide treatment of clients/patients. Copyright © 2016 PsychotherapyMatters.com

Gregory Rennie
Gregory Rennie

Gregory Rennie has been an addiction therapist since 2005 and has also worked at agencies in Southern Ontario as an addiction therapist and concurrent disorders specialist.

Other contributions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *