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Interview with Steve Wilson, MS

Cynthia Levin, Psy.D. Updated: Sep 1st 2000

Steve Wilson is a graduate of Temple University with a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration and a Master's degree in Psychology. He has been a licensed psychologist in Ohio since 1973. His career includes clinical practice as well as consulting to business and industry. Mr. Wilson has also been actively involved in training mental health professionals since 1975. He continues to support his work of training qualified mental health professionals through the Stephen H. Wilson Scholarship Fund and service on the Executive Board of the National Association for Self-Esteem. In keeping with Steve's philosophy of life, the first of his seven books is titled, "Eat Dessert First."

Known across North America as "The Joyologist" and "Cheerman of The Bored," Steve works at creating positive working environments, in part, by curing people of "Terminal Seriousness". He is the co-founder of The World Laughter Tour, a mission that brings health and peace to the world by teaching "How To Create Therapeutic Laughter and Laughter Clubs." The National Speakers Association has awarded Steve the designation of Certified Speaking Professional. His refreshing, unique approach shows how humor helps take care of the caregiver, improves health, and enhances productivity even in the stressed-filled, competitive times we live in.

Contact information for Mr. Steve Wilson can be found at: or

Dr. Cynthia Levin (CL):Steve, as a psychologist you focus on the healing power of humor and laughter to improve people's psychological and emotional well-being, an approach that is somewhat different than traditional schools of psychotherapy. Can you please share with the viewers how you bridge the areas of humor and psychotherapy in working with patients?

Mr. Steve Wilson (SW): Well, I have always had a strong appreciation for humor, which has just been an integral part of my personality. My interest in using humor as a therapeutic intervention was really cultivated when I saw the research on the physiology of laughter and I knew that if we got people laughing more often, that this would help them on many levels, including emotionally, physically, neurochemically, etc.

Most importantly, mental health is really so much about attitude, outlook, and perspective on life. For example, people who are working in the mental health field as practitioners can use their observations of the humor and laughter of their patients as an indicator of what is going on with them emotionally. First, we know that when people are depressed, when there are psychological disorders going on that affect a person's mood there are changes in their responses to humor and the amount of laughter that they exhibit. Paying attention to how a person responds to humor can be indicators of either certain kinds of emotional conditions, or improvements as people respond more to invitations to humor and laughter.

Another way that humor can be helpful in working with patients is that it can offer ways to help people look at things differently, a shift in perspective, which can be very healthy. I've always found in my psychotherapy practice that when the time is right for clients and the opportunity is there, that being able to see a humorous side of their own predicament is very helpful to clients.

For instance, I remember a female client I was working with who was very tearful because she was going through a pretty bad divorce. She was feeling that she was now a statistic so who would want her, especially since she had 3 kids. She was also wondering how was she ever going to get her life back on track. As she was crying, she said, "no one's going to want me." I wanted to bolster her and offer some perspective, so I said back to her, "Look, you're intelligent, you're attractive, you have a good personality. You're going to find a lot of men who would be happy to date you and go out." She looked up through the tears and she said, "Names Steve, I need names!" And we had a big laugh. It broke the tension. Most importantly, it gave her the perspective that maybe she was feeling some self-pity and was feeling sorry for herself, but being able to laugh together about it raised her up out of that.

I've also been very playful with some of my clients, especially children. I remember one young man who was about 11 or 12 years old who was sent to me by a school system. He had been getting into a lot of schoolyard fights and had been engaging in inappropriate touching of some of the girls in his class. When he was in my waiting room, he was sullen, refusing to talk, and he didn't want to make eye contact. I happened to be very good with a yo-yo (as a kid I was a yo-yo champion), so I said, "OK, just wait a minute, wait here. I've got something I want to show you." And I came back with a yo-yo and I started doing yo-yo tricks and his eyes got real wide, and I got his attention. I said, "Would you like to learn how to do some of this?" And he said, "Yeah!" And I said, "Well, let's go back to my office and I'll show you some yo-yo tricks."

That was the way we began to establish rapport by playing some games together and my teaching him a skill; this enabled the communications that was necessary for the rest of our work together, which turned out to be very successful. So, I've had the opportunity now to see when laughter, humor, or playfulness could almost be prescriptive for people.

(CL): How have you encouraged clients to use humor to deal with situations outside of the therapy office?

(SW): There was a 41 year old man I had been working with who had had a 3rd heart attack and he was petrified that his life was over. One time he came in to therapy and was telling me that he was getting ready for an angioplasty procedure, which he was very worried about. We talked about different strategies that he could use to cope with his anxiety and we brainstormed - could laughter or his own good sense of humor come in to play somehow, even at this time? He said he would work on that as he left the session.

When he came back to therapy after the medical procedure had been performed, he said, "I had the greatest experience. I went in to the procedure wearing Groucho glasses with the big nose and bushy eyebrows. I felt that having fun and sharing laughter with the nurses would help to defuse some of my own tension. One of the nurses saw it and handled the Grouch glasses as if they were regular eyeglasses, took them off of me, put them under my pillow and said, 'Now, you'll need these when the procedure is finished.'" The client said he felt that he was much more connected to the staff who were doing the procedure because they had shared a laugh together and he was much more comfortable with them because he saw that they had a good sense of humor.

So, humor is part of our humanity. Human beings are the only creatures on earth that can laugh and smile. When we show that we have a sense of humor, when we do laugh and smile, we're doing something that is exclusively human. People who are very serious and uptight and won't crack a smile are not revealing the humanity that helps us connect to others. As Victor Borge, the Danish pianist-comedian said, "Laughter is the shortest distance between 2 people."

(CL): The power of humor to help foster and create connections between people is such an important point. I'm sure this is something that you saw as being instrumental in your ability to make connections with the patients you worked with.

I'm curious, though, in working with patients have you ever found that there are times when you have to be careful about when you use and do not use humor with them?

(SW): Yes, I think that it requires careful clinical judgment. You have to be aware that there definitely are wrong times to use humor. The introduction of humor is not necessarily always appropriate; it's not always timely. Also, the humor has to be appealing to the tastes of the individual. Not all people have the same taste in humor. I recommend using what is called the AT&T test. If you're about to introduce humor in to a situation with a patient, AT&T asks, "Is it Appropriate, Is it Timely, and Is it Tasteful?" Those are subjective terms, but they have to be considered within the context of who is this individual in front of you.

If you do not consider these three components when using humor with patients then you may offend people with your jokes or your humor, or you may become too insistent with it, which is a turn-off to most people. You're going to destroy your relationship then. You do not want to be the kind of therapist where people come in and you say, "Well, before we get started, I heard a funny joke and I want to start the session with a joke." I am not talking about that kind of humor with patients at all.

Basically, what I'm looking for when using humor with patients is situational humor. Situational humor is about helping people to develop a perspective so they can see the humor that might be present around them or in the situations they are going through, even when painful things are happening in their lives.

Now, there are certainly tragedies in life, there's sadness, there's a time to cry and it is important to honor those painful experiences and emotions. We need to work with all of the emotions.

However, where humor can be helpful is for those people who are caught up in the day-to-day grind and stress of their own lives; caught up in their quest for material acquisitions and satisfactions. They have lost a perspective about what happiness is about and where it comes from. They need to be reminded about simple pleasures, the ability to let go, and to laugh out loud

(CL): Steve, I noticed in your writings and presentations that you assert that laughter and humor are separate constructs, although they are clearly very integral. Can you explain how humor and laughter are differentiated?

(SW): A sense of humor is the ability to see the non-serious element in a situation. The ability to appreciate that something is either juxtaposed in a way that is unexpected or is exaggerated in a way that is somehow funny. But the ability to see that juxtaposition requires some cognitive and analytical skills and you have to be able to think and to put connections together.

Laughter, on the other hand, is a physical act. Laughter is almost always the physical response to humor, but it's not the only response to humor. It's much easier scientifically to measure the physiological changes that accompany laughter than it is to measure the physiology of humor, so to speak. We do know a lot about the physiology of laughter and many wonderful health benefits it affords people similar to the benefits one gets from exercising.

The physiological benefits that laughter provides, such as increasing immune functions and producing effective relaxation responses are some of the many reasons why laughter clubs were developed in India. In laughter clubs we actually can get people together in groups laughing, without the need for jokes, without needing to find humor or be funny.

(CL):Can you please explain to our viewers what laughter clubs are?

(SW): What we're doing in the United States with laughter clubs is an offshoot of references to thousands of years of Buddhist laughing practices that are now used by a physician, Dr. Madan Kataria, in India. There are historical references to Tibetan laughing practices where people just engage in laughter without jokes for 15 minutes in the morning before you get out of bed, for instance. I've heard of laughter meditation groups where people get together and laugh for days and then cry for days.

About 5 or 6 years ago Dr. Madan Kataria, who lives in Bombay, wanted to educate his patients about the value of laughter. He developed a routine of simulated giggling and guffawing. He also borrowed techniques from Yoga because he saw that some of the changes in breathing in Yoga are very much like what happens in laughter. Some of the benefits of Yoga are the same benefits you get from laughter. He synthesized these techniques and created this concept in which people get together in a group and call it a laughter club. The groups or clubs are very informal and non-bureaucratic, sometimes referred to as laughter circles.

These clubs consist of people who want to laugh and want to have a better attitude or outlook on life. There are so many things on a daily basis that make us angry, annoyed, or cause resentments that are going to get in the way of laughter. There are so many stresses and strains that we need to find a way to get beyond them so that they do not take over a person's mindset and create a constant state of negativity. That's what the laughter clubs are able to do.

The physical act of laughing, when it's connected to true mirth, we know has tremendous health benefits for us. But the laughter clubs also incorporate an idea they call sensible living, which has to do with mindfulness of certain practices to reduce anger, to be less judgmental, to be more appreciative, to be more grateful. So laughter not only provides a way of reducing the negative physical effects of stress, but there's the mental or emotional component that, again, I think goes back to perspective and attitude, such as being less angry and being more forgiving.

(CL): It sounds like the laughter clubs are also about fostering a whole mindset on how you want to live your life.

(SW): Well, most of us who do the work of psychotherapy understand that the happiness that so many people are trying to find does not come from having what you want. It doesn't come from acquiring more and more stuff. The desire for more and more is probably at the root of a lot of people's misery. Happiness comes from being able to appreciate what you have, which is an integral part of the attitude that goes along with the laughter clubs.

(CL): Now, Steve, you have actually turned the laughter clubs into a whole World Laughter Tour. What exactly is that?

(SW): Well, the World Laughter Tour is something that I invented with a psychiatric nurse named, Karen Buxman, who lives in Missouri. She teaches about the importance of humor, laughter, and playfulness. Together, we created the World Laughter Tour to have a mission of bringing methods related to humor and laughter that promote health and world peace to every corner of the globe.

(CL): So, this is going international?

(SW): Absolutely. We are in touch with people all over the world who are working to keep people healthy through laughter, thanks to the internet and to Dr. Kataria's tremendous attractiveness to the media. Media from all over the world have interviewed him and talked about what his method is, which has created a strong interest. And we do think that if the world laughs more and people have better attitudes than there's going to be less anger, hatred, strife, tension and it will be a more peaceful world.

(CL): What do you see as the goals of the World Laughter Tour and where do you see its future going?

(SW): We're going to bring the message about the healing effects of laughter and humor as well as teach Dr. Kataria's methods of laughter wherever we can. There's an awful lot of work to be done to educate and inform professionals who work in the field of mental health and in all the allied health professions to make humor and laughter an adjunct to whatever else they're doing; to have an additional tool in the toolbox, so to speak.

On our website at we will have two kinds of chat rooms. One chat room is going to be for people who are actively engaged in bringing therapeutic laughter and laughter clubs out into the world and the second chat room will be a general world wide chat about laughter. So, we're going to help to link the world together.

(CL): Great, so that'll be a good place for people to go if people want to find out more information about humor, laughter, and the World Laughter Tour.

(SW): Absolutely. They'll find links there to literature and research, and be able to connect with like-minded people. We're also starting a library of different sounds of laughter, because that's contagious. It's very interesting that the sound of true mirthful laughter puts a smile on your face even if you're not sure what that other person was actually laughing about. There is almost an infectious quality to the sound of laughter, so on our website we started a library where you just click on different buttons and you hear different laughter's that we've recorded.

(CL): And one of the benefits of laughter as a mental health intervention is that it doesn't have any negative side effects as compared to psychotropic medications!

(SW): As far as we know, and as long as it's based in true mirth, which is very important because there's a kind of humor that can be very hurtful. There's a ridiculing type of humor when we can make fun of people and we can hurt people's feelings. There are racial jokes, sexist jokes, ethnic humor, ageist humor that can all be very hurtful. There's a sensitivity that a therapist needs to develop to understand how other people can be hurt by negative types of humor. I think that there's a lot of good research that can be done on trying to understand why people want to use humor in a way that's so devastating and hurts other people.

(CL): That is a very important point because a lot of comedy now that we see in the media is unfortunately about putting other people down. I think it's important for people to know that that's not what we're talking about here.

(SW): Right! Yet, Cindy, you know that there's an interesting distinction within that because there is a way that humor is a coping mechanism for people who are oppressed. When we have studied the cultures of oppressed people we find that there is derisive humor about the oppressor. It's been hypothesized that it makes the oppressor seem a little more psychologically manageable. With humor we can cut the oppressor down to size.

The things that we fear we sometimes make fun of because it helps us to manage our anxieties that way. I remember when I was a little boy during the 2nd World War the caricatures we made of our enemies in the war. We made caricatures out of dictators like Hitler, Mussolini, and Hiro Hito. We made fun of them and I think it was part of the way that we managed our anxiety and bolstered our morale. So, it's interesting that there may actually be a way that derisive humor directed in a certain tone around certain circumstances can be a helpful coping mechanism.

Because humor has so many complexities is why it's important that therapists study the nature of mirth. There is a great literature available on the study of humor. The scientific journal of the International Society for Humor Studies is called "Humor", which is a scholarly, academic type of journal. I think that we can all become more sophisticated in our knowledge of the scope as well as the limits of humor and laughter and then bring that as an effective extra tool into the therapy process.

(CL): Considering that you are obviously involved in some areas of psychology that are a little bit unique for clinicians, can you explain to our viewers what your professional background is and what facilitated your combining your background with the areas of humor and laughter?

(SW): (laughing) I have to laugh myself when I stop and think, "This is a career!" Well, I was the first person in my family to go to college so I did not get a lot of help from family about choosing a career and thinking things out. I did get guidance finally from some professors along the way. I kept going with my sense of what was interesting to me.

Through the process of exploring, I've done all kinds of work in psychology. I've worked in corrections, in prisons, and in treatment facilities for emotionally disturbed and delinquent youth. I've been an instructor in a mental health and mental retardation training program as well as having a private practice in counseling and psychotherapy. Then, I expanded into consulting to businesses and organizations.

Over time, I've been trying to create these widening circles of influence. In my office I can see one or two people in an hour, and that's a great important influence. But if I get into an organization, I might be able to influence hundreds of people in an hour. Also, through writing books and my public speaking I can sometimes speak to thousands of people in an hour and perhaps have some influence that way. It's all been very gratifying. But for years I was, what I would call, a fairly conventional psychologist and doing fairly conventional psychological work: reading the standard journals, going to the standard kinds of conferences and conventions, attending workshops and continuing education about anxiety, depression, suicide, divorce, human development, and stress.

Then in the early 1980's a brochure came across my desk that offered a workshop in humor for psychologists and other human service workers about how to put humor to work in your practice. And I thought that just sounds a lot more interesting than some of the workshops I've been going to. So, I went to the workshop because it sounded like it would be fun.

In that workshop I found out about the research that's available in terms of what's known about humor and laughter. It was a transformation experience for me and I just poured into that material and immersed myself in it. It became kind of a critical incident in my life; it changed my career, transformed my practice, and released all the inner-child, all the laughter, and all the fun that I had to work on in myself at the same time. So, it was great and I found it very consistent with my religious/philosophical personal beliefs, which integrates humor and laughter as well.

(CL): Did you have any role models either who were professional comedians or professionals in the mental health field that inspired you or influenced the type of humor that you use?

(SW): You know, I didn't find a lot that we might call mental health professionals.

(CL): (laughing)Yeah, we tend to not be a very funny group of people!

(SW): My early experiences were that there were some people who were in mental health who were awfully uptight and serious. When I got to be the director of a program that trained people to go to work in mental health, we put together a curriculum that had a very heavy emphasis on what we called "the mental health of the mental health worker." We felt that there were too many jokes out there suggesting that you have to be crazy to work in mental health. We thought, you know, there's a point at which that's not funny, since there's unfortunately too much truth in that humor. People who work in the field need to be people who are self-aware, who are into the self, becoming comfortable with themselves, developing self-esteem, and developing the best mental health that they can have. So we made that kind of growth a very conscious focus of our training program.

But my real early influences about humor were American humorists, Ogden Nash, H. Allen Smith, Clarence Day, James Thurber, and people in the media, including Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, George Burns and Gracie Allen. Those were early influences in my life towards appreciating humor.

However, it's not necessarily the funny person who has the best sense of humor. Isn't that an interesting thing to say? People with a good sense of humor are not always the ones who are telling jokes or being funny. They are often the ones who laugh easily, are good-natured, and they see a way to take life a little more lightly. They don't get caught up in the minutia of things that make other people stressed or angry. So, it's not necessarily a matter of being funny, or producing humor, but seeing humor and sharing that perspective with other people, and being more easy-going.

(CL): So, it sounds like there is more of a "spirit" of humor, which involves a sensitivity and appreciation for seeing the humor in life.

(SW): Right, and to me, it's perfectly compatible with being highly responsible about our work. We can take our work seriously. We can take our responsibilities seriously. We can take our values seriously. We just have to take ourselves lightly. When we find that balance and a way to do that, then we can be both serious and humorous - it's not incompatible at all.

(CL): That's a great message. Well, humor and laughter certainly sound like some of the best therapeutic interventions for people that will hopefully be contagious.

(SW): That's a great message. Well, humor and laughter certainly sound like some of the best therapeutic interventions for people that will hopefully be contagious.

(CL): That's right. Well, Steve, thank you so much for taking the time to share so much invaluable information to our viewers about why humor and laughter are such fundamental dynamics to our humanity and vital ingredients to improving people's lives.

(SW): Thank you for inviting me and I just want everyone to keep on laughing, let's just say that.

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