I have become curious about the notion of ‘fun’ in therapy. In my life, I am aware that my learning and engagement are enhanced by the presence of fun. More specifically, I know from my own experience as a client in therapy that I have benefited from the appropriate sharing of fun, humour and playfulness in my sessions. In a parallel process, my clients and I may often have fun together in our work.
What then do I mean by 'fun'? What I do not mean is ‘cracking’ jokes or having idle fun with no purpose. I believe that the use of fun in therapy is a serious business. Some of the words and phrases that come to my mind in this context include humour, playfulness, creativity, connection, use of the whole person in the ‘here and now’, and of course enjoyment.
In our sessions together, we may experience fun in a number of ways. Examples may include moments of recognition and humour between us; in creativity with colour or moulding; use of objects; movement; play; imagery, meditation etc.
The case against fun
This notion of fun may elicit judgements or preconceptions. Many people may view the concepts of hard work and fun to be mutually exclusive: that it is not possible to be working hard if you’re having fun. I contest this view, and believe that the ‘whole’ is greater than the sum of its parts. My experience is that humour and fun can enhance the effectiveness of our work and multiply its benefits.
Using humour may bring its own risks. Too much, ill-timed or unhelpful humour could get in the way or lead to misunderstandings. If it turns out that the use of fun or humour is misguided or unwelcome, then we can use this to explore your experience, so enabling the raising of awareness.
As a counsellor, I recognise when you might use humour to deflect from your difficult feelings. In this case, I would help you to raise your awareness of what is happening for you in the moment, and to make sense of any patterns.
The case for fun in therapy
I am a proponent of fun in therapy, when used appropriately. I believe the benefits to be as follows:
- It can enable us to face difficult feelings in a safe environment. Feedback from clients has been that whilst they felt I took them seriously, they have found me ‘human’ and ‘easy to talk to’. I believe that the presence of fun enables this experience
- Fun can be therapeutic and healing in and of itself
- We learn best when things are taught in a fun way; and conversely, learning can be very challenging when we are bored
- Humour and fun can enhance the effectiveness of our work together and multiply its benefits
- Fun allows us to work with the ‘whole’ of you
- It can strengthen the therapeutic relationship or connection
Neurobiology and the benefits of play
It has been shown that animals that play learn how to navigate and adapt to their world quickly. In addition, research shows a strong correlation between brain size and playfulness in mammals. Similarly, it has been shown that play stimulates nerve growth in the amygdala (which is where emotions are processed) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (where executive decisions are processed). Through playing, we create imaginative new cognitive combinations, and so experiment with what works. Play therefore seems significant in helping to sculpt how the brain continues to grow and develop (Brown, 2009).
Learning and memory are enhanced by play, hence the use of role-play, simulation, humour and irony in education. Learning and memory seem to be consolidated more strongly and last longer when learned in play (Brown, 2009).
Sicart argues that to play is to be in the world; playing is a form of understanding our surroundings and a way of engaging with others. He believes that play goes beyond games; it is a mode of being human (Sicart, 2014).
The therapeutic relationship
Research, and my own experience, show that the quality of the relationship between the counsellor and the client is the most important aspect of therapy. There are many ways in which therapist and client can connect, including through fun. There are moments in counselling when the deep connection between therapist and client finds expression through humour. It is of course important to distinguish between laughing at somebody and laughing with them, and it is obviously the latter that I seek to achieve with my clients.
Therapy should enable you to become more aware and therefore increase the choices you have in life. In counselling the work can be difficult and as a therapist I aim to facilitate this process. In no way is this about trivialising difficult experiences, but at the right time, in the right way, fun and humour can be helpful and enhance the work in therapy.
Brown, S with Vaughan, C. 2009. Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Avery.
Sicart, M. 2014. Play Matters (Playful Thinking). London: The MIT Press.
Photo by Eye for Ebony