Bilfinger Berger Magazine, 02-2006, p. 12-13
Laughter is the best medicine
Dr. Michael Titze is a pioneer in therapeutic humor in Germany: a psychologist who helps his patients laugh away their fears. His message: we can only be happy if we learn to make fun of ourselves.

Dr. Titze, it's a popular saying that laughter is healthy. Is that really true?
Yes. Laughter has a wide range of positive physiological side effects. It has been demonstrated that even people suffering from depression feel better if they force the shape of their mouth into a smile for twenty minutes.

What exactly does laughter do to us?
It makes our inhalation deeper and more prolonged, while the exhalation becomes shorter. All in all, laughing causes us to breathe more intensively, increasing the oxygen intake of the blood. There is also a positive effect on heart rhythm, and blood pressure is reduced. Laughter runs in waves through our entire muscle apparatus. The tension created in the diaphragm has a massaging effect on the intestines, which in turn affects intestinal functioning in a positive way. Fat metabolism is also stimulated, improving the elimination of cholesterol. The body probably also produces 'happiness' hormones. A minute of laughter has a similar effect to doing relaxation exercises for 45 minutes.

Are people with a sense of humor more successful in their jobs?
Of course. In general, people who don't smile tend to be unpopular. Those with a permanent sour grapes expression on their face simply have a tougher time in life. Smiling and laughing while maintaining eye contact helps build bridges.

Is it always a good thing to laugh?
We shouldn't think about it too much. If laughter is natural and uncontrolled it never seems ridiculous. The important thing is simply to let it happen, just as children do. There are studies which show that children laugh up to 400 times a day, while adults only manage 15 times.

Can we learn to laugh more?
We must listen to the child within us - as children we are not so aware of what other people might think and we are less prone to self-control. And anyway, self-mockery is the key to the world of humor. In your work you use humor as a therapy with patients.

What sort of people come to you for help?
They are often people who grew up looking at stony faces, and this has led to a feeling of rejection. When someone smiles at you, you feel valued. The people who come to me for therapy have problems with self-esteem and with other people's expectations, or they have an exaggerated sense of shame. They have a fear of being laughed at or not being taken seriously. Often aged between 40 and 50, they will have suffered many disappointments in their working lives. My approach to using therapeutic humor is not about making patients laugh at all costs. I try to help them develop a positive, courageous attitude to life which includes having a sense of humor.

How do you teach this happy approach to life?
I use paradoxical, provocative methods to help patients learn to laugh at their fears. For example, with people who have an exaggerated fear of shame, I act out situations with them which they have experienced as embarrassing - such as having lunch with new colleagues in the company canteen for the first time. Patients re-enact these embarrassing moments in the style of a parody or a caricature. It is this ability to overstep the limits and disregard normal barriers which makes humor possible in the first place. Life requires us to be bold enough to laugh at ourselves.

Does that mean we should make fun of ourselves?
Yes. For example, if a colleague asks you with a teasing undertone if you've understood an article in a specialist journal, you could, instead of launching an explanation, fire off a quick-witted response such as: «I don't have any problems with the text - I always just look at the pictures.» Or if a female colleague remarks on your 'loud' perfume, you might give her a smile and say that you were in a hurry and must have grabbed the mosquito spray by mistake. If we dare to make ourselves look ridiculous, we can be 'shameless' in the literal sense of the word, and break the spell that usually paralyzes us.

But surely there are moments when we simply don't want to laugh?
Of course. Some people only laugh because they think it is expected of them. This is a form of compulsive behavior and actually makes it more difficult to laugh freely.

People from other countries often say that Germans are very serious - is that true?
Humor therapy originates from America; at international congresses I meet colleagues from all over the world. My impression is that Germans have a healthy sense of self-irony and are actually quite at ease with themselves. Southern Europeans tend to be regarded as relaxed, but in fact they lack this gentle sense of self-mockery. We Germans have allowed the clown within us to grow - and that may be something which has happened over time.