From a positive psychology perspective, humor can be viewed as an adaptive strength, an important aspect of holistic health, and a potentially beneficial coping mechanism in the face of stressful or traumatic events. Existing research generally supports the idea that individuals can manage threatening situations by turning them into something that can be laughed at, although the effectiveness of such humor use is dependent on contextual factors and the specific forms of humor that are used (e.g., aggressive versus benign humor). However, there is minimal research on how trauma survivors actually express humor in therapy, particularly in the context of difficult or traumatic subject matter. Accordingly, the purpose of the current study was to qualitatively explore expressions of humor in therapy with trauma survivors. A sample of 5 client-participants from community counseling centers was selected, and videotaped therapy sessions involving trauma discussions for each client-participant were analyzed. A qualitative and deductive content analysis was employed, using a coding system that was created based on existing literature on humor and psychology, to examine verbal expressions of humor and laughter in psychotherapy sessions with trauma survivors. The results indicated that client-participants deliberately used and responded to humor both verbally and in the form of laughter in psychotherapy sessions, and most frequently in the context of serious, difficult, or traumatic topics. Client verbal expressions of humor (VEH) frequently consisted of different combinations of Dark, Aggressive, and/or Self-Deprecatory Humor. Client-participants were also found to laugh almost twice as often as they produced a VEH, and their therapists laughed along with them about half the time. Last, therapists often laughed inappropriately and outside the context of any identifiable humor (VEH or laughter) in their work with trauma survivors. It is hoped that this study will raise awareness around the issue of client humor use in therapy, humor use in coping with stressful or traumatic events, and cultural variations in humor use. The findings have implications for clinical training and shed light on the use of potentially maladaptive forms of humor in therapy, an area of study that has been almost entirely neglected.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Dissertations (PsyD) -- Psychology; Wit and humor -- Psychological aspects; Laughter -- Psychological aspects; Psychotherapy patients

Date of Award


School Affiliation

Graduate School of Education and Psychology



Degree Type


Degree Name


Faculty Advisor

Hall, Susan;