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Laughter Therapy: Is laughter really the best medicine?

Imagine there was an anti-depressant that reduced blood pressure and stress hormones, evened out blood sugar levels, improved the immune system, made you smarter, helped you sleep and also had pain killing action.  Imagine this medication was not addictive, safe even in large doses, had no side effects, virtually no contra-indications and people were giving it away for free!  In this article, Kathy Herring - Therapist at The Hope Street Centre - argues that these are some of the many benefits claimed for laughter which have been backed up by research.

Benefits of Laughter

While the benefits of laughing have not been subject to a great deal of research, the studies that have been published are universally positive.  While we are laughing blood flow increases and breathing deepens, leading to more oxygen in the blood and the brain.  This makes us feel more alert and lively.  Feel good endorphins, neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, are released and mood is lifted.  The body gets a good workout too, particularly the abdominal and facial muscles.  10 – 15 minutes laughing burns about 50 calories.  When laughing stops body and mind relax, blood pressure is lowered and the parasympathetic nervous system enters repair and recovery mode.  After a session of laughter studies have shown people are more able to tolerate pain, are more likely to remember what they have learnt, blood sugar level of type II diabetics is reduced, immune system function is higher and stress chemicals cortisol and adrenaline are lower. 

Studies have also shown that while we all know the difference between a fake and a genuine laugh, our bodies do not.  We release the same feel good chemicals and get the same health benefits from laughing on purpose as we do from spontaneous laughter.  Even hearing people laugh or thinking about something funny can set up a chain of chemical reactions that work on mood and health.  So even reading this article is probably doing you good.

Some Laughter Pioneers

In 1971 Dr Hunter ’Patch’ Adams a set up the Gesundheit! Institute, a free hospital integrating conventional and alternative treatments.  Central to his treatment plan is the use of laughter, joy and creativity as part of the healing process.  The Institute regularly send teams of specially trained humanitarian clowns out across the world in response to suffering, need and crisis.

In 1979 Norman Cousins wrote an influential book ‘Anatomy of an Illness’ about his struggle with debilitating arthritis and the alternative treatments he developed.  He found that watching his favourite comedy videos helped with the pain, "I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anaesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep."

In 1995 GP Dr Madan Kataria, interested by research into the health benefits of laughter, began a laughter club in Mumbai.  He combined unconditional laughter with yoga breathing and practiced with a small group of his patients to improve their health and well-being.  The practice has grown into a worldwide movement of more than 6000 Laughter Yoga clubs in over 60 countries.

Laughter Yoga

Laughter Yoga is a group exercise class with a difference, the exercise is laughter.  There are no jokes or comedy in Laughter Yoga but while practicing laughter in playful exercises spontaneous and genuine laughter spreads through the group.  Laughing is easier and more natural in a group and more likely to develop into real laughter.  Laughter Yoga sessions start with a warm up of body, mind and voice then the group are lead through a variety of playful ways to laugh.  Listening to and seeing everyone laugh and relax seems funny and soon people are genuinely laughing for no reason. The end of a laughter session is often a laughter meditation followed by relaxation.  This is a sustained belly laugh session which lasts 10-20 minutes and can bring on a sense of euphoria and deep relaxation afterwards.

Laughter is being used in business for team building, in schools to improve pupil well-being and boost achievement, in hospitals alongside conventional care to manage pain and improve outcomes, in children’s centres with depressed mothers, with soldiers to prevent PTSD and in warzones to relieve suffering.  These are just some of the ways laughter enthusiasts are finding to bring a little more joy into the world.

You don’t have to join a laughter group to feel the benefits of having a good laugh but it is easier to laugh out loud in a group of people.  You can watch something funny with your friends and family, meet up with people who tell a good story, go to a comedy night, go surfing on You-Tube or look at some old photos, whatever gets you laughing.  There are currently around thirty Laughter Yoga groups in the UK and I will be starting one locally very soon.  If you would like to meet up for a laugh with some like-minded people at a Laughter Yoga session please get in touch.

Upcoming events

World Laughter Day May 4th
UK Laughter Festival June 7th – 13th
Olaughics - Laughter Championships June 8th

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