Published: March 18, 2022
Can you laugh yourself happy?
That's the question Hephzibah and Dr Brian Kaplan ask as they practice a unique form of therapy that encourages patients to make fun of their most destructive traits.
Dr Kaplan is also behind the successful podcast Are You Feeling Funny? in which he interviews comedians, including Adam Kay, Issy Suttie, Milton Jones and Stewart Lee. He's on stage at JW3's comedy festival on Sunday interviewing comedian Adam Bloom for the latest episode.
"I'll be following the exact format, asking about incidents of mind body and spirit," says Dr Kaplan. "I tell them 'only talk about what you are comfortable with', but they choose to tell me about the most intimate things like giving birth or having a colonoscopy."
The couple, who have 50 years of combined clinical practice, have a book out; Almost Happy, which captures their innovative use of humour to address people's issues and bad habits.
"You can use humour consciously to change people for the better," explains Hephzibah who is founder of the London Art Therapy Centre in King's Cross. "There's an assumption that we are one self, but in fact we are multiple selves with different views and attitudes. One can become too dominant or overbearing. In our practice we find a way to lampoon or satirise the self - the behaviour - that is sabotaging your chance of happiness."
Dr Kaplan has been using humour therapeutically to reduce stress and help clients cope with everyday life for more than 25 years. It all started when he saw Hampstead comic Arnold Brown at the New End Theatre in 1994. Days later he spotted Brown in a South End Green cafe. The pair struck up a conversation and became friends.
"It's a very Hampstead story about a long relationship between a doctor and a comedian, focusing on how comedy can be used in medicine," he says. "I told him 'I really loved your show, I am a doctor,' and the conversation immediately changed to questions about medicine. He came to me, I gave him acupuncture, and he would make me laugh. I thought it was a good deal."
The pair have since shared the same stage, and Brown joins the Kaplans for the JW3 event together with award-winning comedian Adam Bloom.
Dr Kaplan says the health benefits of laughter are scientifically documented and include stress reduction, muscle relaxation, increased immunity, lung health and endorphin release. But it's the boost to mental and spiritual wellbeing that he's fascinated by.
Almost Happy is subtitled 'Pushing Your Buttons With Reverse Psychology,' and describes a "provocative therapy" that involves patients giving consent for Dr Kaplan to tease their problems.
"Not everyone can do this therapy. You have to have a little bit of funny bones or a sense of humour to do it. I tell anyone volunteering for this approach 'are you willing to laugh at parts of yourself that are holding you back?' They give explicit permission for me to be ridiculous, absurd or cheeky. The therapist has to be prepared to throw away his dignity for the benefit of the patient."
One woman who was drinking a bottle of wine a day experienced a breakthrough when he told her: 'If I had your life, I'd drink two.'
"If you are going to make jokes about aspects of people's lives, it's crucial it's done with affection in your heart and a twinkle in your eye," he says. "It needs to be edgy humour coming with good intention."
After working with humour for many years Dr Kaplan observes "there are two types of comedians". "People who tell jokes and have material written for them, and funny bones comedians like Arnold Brown and Paul Merton. They are born, not made."
Almost Happy is at JW3 on March 20 at 6pm as part of the Comedy Festival. Almost Happy is out now, price £16.99. 'Are You Feeling Funny?' is produced by Snipper Nixon and available on podcast platforms.