Neohumour [or neohumor, USA] is the word we use to describe the specific use of humour to provoke positive behavioural change in willing participants.
Humour in its various forms, including reverse psychology, absurdism and irony has been used for many purposes: to entertain, surprise, challenge, enlighten and provoke. The purpose of comedy as entertainment is to make people laugh in the moment. The use of outrageous humour to help people feel better in conditions of extreme adversity is known as ‘gallows humour’. However, humour can also be used cruelly to hurt or bully people – or even to to deflect or brush off personal issues that need to be faced. Nevertheless, well-intentioned humour can act as a mirror that indirectly reveals truth about oneself. Moreover, laughter with its positive psychological and physical effects can act as a balm for the discomfort of reflecting upon one’s foibles.
In 2020 we began to use the word neohumour to describe the specific use of humour to help people become happier in everyday life. The work is similar to that of the Court Jester who – with permission of the monarch – essays comedy and jokes to get his master to think creatively differently about affairs of state and other important issues.
Dr. Brian Kaplan, a medically qualified doctor and avid fan of stand up comedy, has always been intrigued by the physiological benefits of laughter. Brian has encapsulated these proven benefits in the acrostic, SMILEE.
S — STRESS hormones: Epinephrine/adrenaline [US/UK], norepinephrine/noradrenaline [US/UK], and cortisol are reduced.
M — MUSCULAR relaxation: Muscles take two hours to return to their previous state of tension after a big belly laugh.
I — IMMUNITY: Increased antibodies in blood after laughter may improve resistance to colds and other infections.
L — LUNGS: are helped by laughter expelling stale air, allowing more fresh air to enter.
E — EXERCISE: Two hundred laughs a day is equivalent exercise to rowing for ten minutes – and without the agonised expression that rowers, stationary cyclists, and joggers customarily have on their faces.
E — ENDORPHINS and ENCEPHALONS: Natural high–making chemicals of the body are increased by laughter.
In 1996 Brian participated in a workshop led by Frank Farrelly, an extraordinary psychotherapist who in the 1970s had developed Provocative Therapy, the responsible use of humour and reverse psychology in the clinic. Brian and Hephzibah remained students of Farrelly until his death in 2013, and have stayed in touch with many of his acolytes all over the world.
We believe that humour has even wider applications than its responsible use in clinical practice. Many people and organisations like the idea of promoting positive changes with humour – without being tied into the conventional therapist-client relationship. We therefore felt a new word was necessary to describe the practical use of humour (with permission) to effect change in people in many environments outside the clinic.
How does it work?
After acquiring permission, the practitioner uses ironic, satirical, ridiculous and absurd interventions to provoke the recipient to reflect differently on their situation. This is always done abiding by the Golden Rule of the process – only with a twinkle in the eye and affection in the heart. This ensures that the recipient is left in no doubt that the practitioner unequivocally means well.
The object of this process is to generate laughter and an Aha! Moment in recipients as they laugh together about the funny side of what is being discussed.
With its proven physical and psychological benefits, laughter creates an ideal psychophysiological state to embrace change. We are more relaxed and less defensive when laughing. When we are laughing at the parts of ourselves that are holding us back, we disempower them. This makes it more likely that we will hear our own voice of conscience – that part of ourselves that knows the right thing to do. When we follow our conscience with appropriate behaviour, we feel happier and more relaxed about life. This voice of conscience is axiomatic to the process and you can read more here.
What exactly are we laughing at?
As many psychologists, historians and even theologians have posited, we are not merely one self with one personality (See Fadiman & Gruber in Subselves) – we are a complex multiplicity of selves – also known as sub-personalities, subselves, archetypes and I-positions. We feel unbalanced and unhappy when we inadvertently allow any subself to become too loud and dominant for our own good.
While reason and therapy may help us understand the nature and source of our issues, any direct advice or authoritarian approach is likely to be counter-productive because people have a strong and natural aversion to being told what to do. This is why we use reverse psychology, provocative tools and humour to galvanise change.
The use of neohumour to effect personal change involves identifying the loud subself that is leading you astray and disempowering it with well-intentioned humour. Neohumour is never directed at the whole of you, only at the part of you that is making you unhappy. When you laugh at the part of you that is holding you back, you can distance yourself from its influence, thus decreasing its power over you. The humour and laughter in the room creates a high energy situation and a window of opportunity for change and personal growth.
This process is not entirely new. People who love each other have always used humour to help each other because permission to use it is taken for granted. Neohumour emulates this process in the professional sphere, but explicit permission needs to be obtained every time it is used.