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Therapeutic Humor or Humor that is Therapeutic: Is There a Difference and Does that Matter?

By: Steven M Sultanoff, Ph.D.

You just spent two hours at a comedy club listening to one of your favorite comedians. As you leave you feel uplifted, invigorated, light-hearted, relaxed, and much more. Did you spend two hours experiencing therapeutic humor or humor that was therapeutic?

I believe you experienced humor that was therapeutic and not therapeutic humor. If so, then what is the difference. Clearly, the experience was “therapeutic.” It likely had a positive impact on your cognitive, emotional, relational, physical, and physiological well-being.

When you experience something that is you see as funny, and it has a positive impact on you, then you experienced humor that is therapeutic (but not necessarily therapeutic humor). This could include virtually all humorous stimuli including jokes, sitcoms, movie comedies, amusing life situations, etc. Virtually anything that tickles your funny bone is therapeutic.

However, to be therapeutic humor (by my definition), humor must have a couple of distinct qualities. The humor must primarily have been shared with therapeutic intention and purpose. The one offering humor must intend to be funny and have a therapeutic reason (e.g. relieve another’s stress, change another’s thinking, relieve another’s emotional distress, etc.) for sharing the humor.

My goal is not necessarily to be funny. It is to be therapeutic. By sharing that which is funny, my goal is to impact the individual’s well-being.

On the other hand, the comedian’s primary intent is to entertain. This is true for virtually all humorous stimuli (sitcoms, jokes, pranks, etc.). For the most part, the comedian is not trying to increase health and well-being. The comedian’s goal is to entertain.

Those of us who are offering therapeutic humor to positively impact others are intentional, purposeful, and to some extent trained in how to deliver humor, and we understand how and why humor is therapeutic.

As we seek to establish a professional identity the difference between therapeutic humor and humor that is therapeutic becomes more and more critical.

To Be or Not To Be; Who and What Are We??

Who are we as therapeutic humor professionals? How do we define ourselves? How do we explain to others who we are and what we do? How do we differ from comedians and other humorous forms of entertainers and entertainment?

I challenge you to develop an elevator “pitch” or talk typically defined as a very brief 30 seconds to perhaps a minute that describes who you are and what you do in the therapeutic humor field.

The public generally has no clue who we are or what we do. It is time for us to educate the public as best as we can to help them understand the therapeutic humor universe.

About The Author:

Steven Sultanoff, PhD is a psychologist, professor, professional speaker, past AATH president, and internationally recognized expert on therapeutic humor. With over 35 years in the therapeutic humor field, he has published numerous innovative articles on therapeutic humor, is frequently quoted in national publications (Forbes, Time, Prevention, USA Today, etc.), and appears on "What's Your Ailment," (streaming on TOPIC) as well as having appeared on FOX, STARS, PBS, etc. Steve is an AATH “Lifetime Achievement Award” recipient and offers live and online programs in therapeutic humor. His website ( provides a wealth of information on therapeutic humor as well as a wide range of topical humor, and his website provides continuing education programs, articles, and a blog that includes issues in therapeutic humor as well as a section specifically for humor professionals.



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