My Use of Humor, Occupational Therapy and Being Human

My Use of Humor, Occupational Therapy and Being Human – Lorin G. (OT)

For me, humor has become a valuable asset and love as I have grown into maturity as a therapist and as a human being.  When I finished my occupational therapy program at San Jose State  University, the department director, Dr. Marti Southam, PhD, had a research interest that was personally and professionally very important to me, occupational therapy and humor.  My mother has been telling me jokes for as long as I could remember.  The summer before the final year of school I had led exercise groups for people recovering from CVA and individuals living with Parkinson’s’ disease at an outpatient clinic.  In this group I started to remember jokes from decades ago.  For me, therapeutic humor became a second language, one that has served me well in the remaining year of school and my work as an occupational therapist since the winter of 2005.

This sense of humor has been called a defense mechanism (I call it an offense mechanism), enchanting, appropriate, inappropriate, a pain in the rear, and a lot of fun.  In my own philosophy of occupational therapy, humor is an important, if not central, part of my therapeutic sense of self.  Bringing a smile or a laugh to a patient or a co-worker really brightens my day.  Of course it is always important to judge your surroundings and your “audience”, the patients that you are rehabilitating and the individuals with whom you work.   

In my own growth as an individual and as a therapist, being able to laugh at myself and at jokes or external objects of humor has been a real benefit.  For me, humor is a bit like a second language, perhaps an easier one than most, like Pig Latin.  I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes when I was about 12 and have a visual impairment not associated with the diabetes, which has made me legally blind.  These were heavy labels to grow up with in our culture which is so dominated by health.  I had pretty low self-esteem for a lot of the time when I was younger and focused on these conditions as a central part of my identity.  Dr. Sheri Colberg, PhD and Dr. Steven Edelman, MD, in their book, 50 Secrets of the Longest Lived People With Diabetes, states a sense of humor is one of the most important qualities a person with diabetes can develop to have a healthy outlook on the disease (2).  Humor has helped me to get a more healthy understanding of diabetes and low vision so that they are not such central aspects of my life and more things to laugh at and live with.  I have had diabetes for 30 years and am now able to focus on taking care of the disease though exercise, diet and insulin and am able to laugh at some of its oddities like low blood sugar.  Low blood sugar can feel a lot like being drunk.  For me, the first thing to go haywire with low blood sugar is my cognitive function.

According to Dr. Southam, there are two main varieties of humor in therapy, one planned and the other spontaneous.  Planned humor for me means my use of jokes.  I try to do research on short and longer jokes that can get a laugh from friends, patients and co-workers.  As Borders Book Store was closing, I got a copy of  “365 Pretty Good Jokes, Page a Day Calendar, 2011” (3) for $1.00.  This is a small contribution to my arsenal of jokes which is a backbone of my sense of humor.   When I need a smile from a patient who appears to be in a good mind for some laughter I can ask, “What did the fish say when he swam into a brick wall?”  After a few seconds I will answer, “Dam”.  Another favorite short yam is: Q: Why did the raisin go to the dance with the prune?  A; He couldn’t get a date.  Jokes like this will bring a smile to most peoples’ faces.

Spontaneous humor means keeping a smile in my mind or on my face when appropriate and being able to create jokes when the opportunity should arise.   When I was working at a SNF a few months ago, there was one gentleman in his 60s who had Turret’s syndrome and would always repeat “Gawddammitt” about 12 times when having to stand at his walker or be transferred from his bed to his wheelchair.  Once when writing a daily note, and getting frustrated with the thin binders that had to hold a tremendous volume of papers, I told some nurses that I was I heard that Turret’s syndrome is contagious and I proceeded to repeat my resident’s utterances as I wrestled with the charts.  This brought a round of laughter which was much needed by everyone at this time of a long day.

Humor has loads of health effects.  In her recent article, “Therapeutic Humor” in the magazine, “OT Practice” (4), Rondalyn Whitney states, “(h) humor gives you a release of emotions, floods the body with endorphins, counters more stressful emotionality, increases tolerance to pain and lowers blood pressure.”

For me, humor is an important component of being human.  Our lives are regularly filled with stress, tragedy, hard work and suffering, but a good laugh or just a smile can help reduce most worries.  Working or having to live in a nursing home or other health-care environment can be a stressful experience. I know with my own experience of living with a medical condition that laughter is priceless.   Humor is another lens with which to view the world in which we live.  Occupational therapy can be a funny profession with its ties to medical science, psychology, physical therapy, speech pathology and more.  It’s important to be careful not to tread on the toes of members of these other professions.  Our patients are also often in need of a good laugh or a way to bring a smile to their faces.  Sensitivity and honoring the individual is central to the use of humor and therapy.  It is no accident that the words, humor and humanity, are so closely linked.  I am no etymologist, but I can understand that both are linked to humility, an attitude that we always need in our work, our self-regard, and our understanding of our places in the world.


(1)     Personal communication with Dr. Marti Southam, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA (2004).

(2)     Colberg, Sheri R., Edelman, Steven V: 50 Secrets of the Longest Lived People with Diabetes (Marlowe Diabetes Library) [Paperback], accessed at

(3)     Keilor, Garrison, Introduction to “365 Pretty Good Jokes, Page a Day Calendar, 2011”, Workman Publishers; New York, 2010.

(4)     Rondalyn Whitney, PhD, OTR/L, “Therapeutic Humor”, in OT Practice, American Occupational Therapy Association;  Bethesda, MD; July, 2011; pp. 14-18.


I.                     Humor and Health

II.                    My use of Humor

III.                  Humor and Rehabilitation

IV.                  Humor and Perspective

V.                   Conclusion


Transition from Hand Therapy to Working at a SNF

I.                     My work history

II.                    Work in Hand Therapy

III.                  Transition to SNF

IV.                  My Added Challenges

V.                   Work at a SNF