The laughter school
 

Why laughter truly is the best medicine

 

(c) Akasha Lonsdale and John Gloster-Smith

 

The news this summer was that the UK government was looking into ways to make us happier. As the BBC programme “The Happiness Formula” in May 2006 showed, happiness levels in Britain are falling. In fact the proportion of people saying they are very happy has fallen from 52% in1957 to just 36% today, despite huge increases in income. As professionals in the Stress arena, you will no doubt be well aware of the statistics that show increasingly serious levels of stress being experienced by people. So the news about happiness levels is unlikely to be a surprise.

 

What research has tended to show, is that there are certain key factors that contribute to happiness. As the major publicist of Positive Psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania has determined that three components stand out: pleasure (the “smiley-face piece”), engagement (the depth of involvement with family, work, romance and hobbies) and meaning (using personal strengths to serve some larger end). Seligman says that engagement and meaning are particularly important. Other researchers have pointed to bondedness with friends, family and loved ones as a major contributor.

 

So, if we look at laughter as one manifestation of happiness, it turns out that it’s not something we tend to do alone. “It is a tool of communication” says Robert Provine of the University of Maryland. Also laughter is infectious, once one person starts, others quickly follow (very difficult if someone gets the giggles in the middle of something that’s meant to be deadly serious.) When we laugh with others, we feel more connected to them – it’s part of our bonding.

 

But what has been happening to laughter and why is it so important? What does laughter have to tell us about our happiness – and our wellbeing?

 

Well, laughter is generally considered to be an essential behaviour of a happy, joyful person whilst lack of laughter contributes to anxiety, depression, and illness. In today’s society, as with happiness in general, we seem to have forgotten how to laugh. Dr. Michael Titze, a German psychologist tells us that,

 

·         In the 1950’s people used to laugh 18 minutes a day, but today we laugh not more than 6 minutes a day, despite the huge rise in the standard of living

 

·         Children can laugh up to 300-400 times a day, but when we grow up to be adults this frequency comes down to less than 15 times a day, if at all.

 

So why has laughter declined? The answers will not surprise you. Here’s a few reminders. First there’s the stress of living in a fast world, which is increasingly dominated by anxiety and fear. Telecommunications have made bad news instantly accessible to millions, thus accentuating the anxiety and fear. People are working long hours, under pressure to move fast. Transport is congested. Cities are crowded. Divorce and family break-ups are high. So negative stress levels are constantly on the increase.

 

Many people live in the past, feeling guilty or resentful whilst others worry about the future. Often the cause of perceived difficulties is attributed to something or someone else. So we don’t take true responsibility and find it hard to live in the moment – which of course is where laughter occurs.

 

Happiness is perceived as conditional on external factors and becomes part of the “more, bigger, better” syndrome and the pursuit of certain things in order to be happy, which if successful results in a cycle of immediate fulfilment followed by dissatisfaction and a renewed wanting that leaves a lingering feeling of “what I have is not enough”. This becomes a repetitive feeling that “I have not got what I want, something is still missing. If only I could…..or …..when I ……..”. Addiction to desire is seen as one of the most fundamental barriers to human contentment and is all-pervasive in today’s society.

 

Laughter is seen as dependent on a “sense of humour”: we believe we must have a reason to laugh, that laughter is about laughing “at” something or somebody else, that it only happens on certain occasions and that it depends on “one’s sense of humour” ie. it is dependent on external stimuli or a belief you have about your personality.

 

However, major hope is now available. As a result of research in both East and West, people are increasingly realising that laughter is something that can be spontaneously created and need not be dependent on anything. In fact you can laugh for no reason at all. Authentic laughter is an energy that wells up from within. It is something that occurs spontaneously, without a reason, resulting in the experience often called joyfulness.

 

People might have lost it but it is perfectly possible to help them get it back. People can be taught to laugh for no reason, to discover their own innate capacity to experience their own well-spring of laughter and joy. You do not have to be happy or have a “sense of humour” or even have a reason to laugh. You do not have to be constrained by your social conditioning.

 

We are talking here about a simple technique that has proved so powerful that it has become a world-wide phenomenon, after being introduced in India by a medical doctor, Dr. Madan Kataria, to help people manage the stress of life in Mumbai. Dr. Kataria was so concerned about this issue that one day he went out into a park and asked as many people as he could to join him in an instant laughter club. Eventually he managed to persuade 4 people to join him. As others watched in initial bemusement, they took it in turns to tell jokes. As we have seen, laughter is infectious. Others started to join and soon he had 50 people in his club.

 

Unfortunately they ran out of jokes after two weeks and then two women complained because the humour had become sexist and rude. To rescue his new idea, and this was the crucial breakthrough, Dr Kataria turned to the idea of laughter exercises to help people to fake laughter, to “fake it till you make it”. That worked a treat! He also turned to his wife, a yoga teacher, and borrowed from yoga some of its deep breathing, which he adapted to simple breathing exercises to support people’s ability to sustain the laughter beneficially. Laughter Yoga was born, his club recovered and soon the park was attracting large numbers to pre-work laughter sessions. It proved so popular that it spread, first all round India and now across the globe.

 

Why has this been so successful? First and foremost because it is so easy: anybody can do it. Such a laughter training technique belongs to all and has no hidden agenda. It is not at anybody’s expense. It is socially and emotionally safe. And, very importantly, it is the doing of it that is beneficial. No thinking is required. It is the thinking part of the brain that holds the beliefs we described above that are limiting our natural laughter. Laughter bypasses this thinking left part of our brain, tapping into our right-brain functions. Here lie our child-like qualities; it’s where we are spontaneous and fun, creative and intuitive.

 

The practical exercises, which are simple physical techniques, are aimed at contacting this natural fun side, largely through “acting silliness”. Also, as we said earlier, laughter is infectious and as the natural laughter mechanism kicks in, fake laughter becomes real laughter. Finally, as it also makes use of a simple breathing technique, it is a highly effective form of aerobic exercise that makes you feel good. We see it all the time in the bright smiles, flushed faces and shining eyes of participants after a laughter session.

 

So why is laughter truly the best medicine?

 

Well, it is scientifically proven that, even if you pretend to laugh or act happy, your body produces “happiness” chemicals. Our bodies do not know the difference between thinking about doing something and actually doing it. Whatever the source of laughter, it leads to the same set of physiological changes in the body. Laughter generates the release of positive chemicals, which

 

·         Enrich the blood with plentiful supplies of oxygen

·         Boost the immune system and bring relaxation

·         Counteract harmful stress chemicals

·         Release endorphins, the body’s pain-killer hormone, and give a sense of well-being

·         Counteract depression, anxiety and psychosomatic problems

·         Ensure good sleep

·         Bring a happy glow to your face and make your eyes shine

 

This is supported by the research of 19th Century French physiologist, Duchene, who found that a “real” smile (when the lips part and turn up and the muscles contract around the eyes to create crow’s feet), involuntarily sends a signal of genuine joy to the brain of the person smiling. So even an induced “real” smile can uplift your mood. (Try it now. How do you feel?). And of course when we experience a “real” smile from someone else, we tend to automatically smile back, even if we don’t know the person.

 

In the 1970’s, it was Norman Cousins, author of “The Anatomy of an Illness” who found that a large part of what cured him of a potentially fatal illness, was watching funny films. This sparked serious scientific interest. Subsequently Dr William Fry of Stanford University, California, showed that laughter stimulated the heart rate, provided good cardio-vascular exercise and decreased the chances of respiratory infections whilst Dr Lee Berk of Loma Linda University Medical Centre, California, proved that laughter produced fewer arrhythmias, lowered blood pressure, lowered the levels of stress hormones, (particularly cortisol), reduced the need for medication and ultimately resulted in fewer heart attacks. Laughter has been so beneficial physiologically, that it’s sometimes called “internal jogging”.



But the physiological benefits are mirrored by psychological benefits. Illness also has its psychological causes. Happier people tend to have fewer illnesses. Researchers have found that happiness or related states like hopefulness, optimism and contentment appear to reduce the risk or limit the severity of cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, diabetes, hypertension, colds and upper-respiratory infections. People who struggle with life are often more predisposed to these illnesses. According to a Dutch study of elderly patients published in 2004, those upbeat mental states referred to above reduced an individual’s risk of death by 50% over a 9 year period. Also, doctors have known for years that clinical depression can worsen heart disease.

 

Laughter, however, makes it easier to handle life and its challenges, because it puts us intensely “in the moment”, and it’s when we are in the moment, that we are not aware of our problems. It’s as if we literally drop them. Can you remember a time when you’ve laughed and things have somehow seemed different? We even say we’ve “laughed it off”. Laughter puts us at ease: people who laugh, worry less than those who don’t.  

 

It helps us handle challenges because it relaxes us and gives us a better perspective: a period of laughter gives us the opportunity to look at things differently and defuses painful emotions. With practice, it develops joyfulness so that this precious experience is more present in everyday life. By acting silliness in groups and having a great laugh about it, we build self-confidence which helps us drop our inhibitions. As said earlier, it also helps communication because laughter is an important social skill that keeps communication fun. It develops our innate sense of humour, helps us find more laughter in our lives and thus changes our perception of who we are for the better. What a simple gift we’ve got – if only we used it more!

 

So laughter training has widespread application. It has been successfully used in corporate environments for team building, stress management, communication, employee engagement, innovation and creativity. It has been provided for seniors, children, parents, in relationship training, in tourism, with cancer self-help groups, associations dealing with depression, and in hospitals and other medical settings.

 

If we take corporate environments in more detail, it has been found that the use of laughter has a positive effect in reducing stress, which as you know is the number one cause of absenteeism. Also it is a major communication enhancer. It reduces the sense of conflict since it is hard to be in conflict with someone you are laughing with. It creates a sense of safety and people feel more open. It stimulates fun and we become fun to be with. We become more likeable. Criticism seems to collapse. Barriers are broken down and a sense of bondedness is created. People feel more self-confident.

 

Laughter is therefore not surprisingly used as part of team building and to foster creativity and innovation in teams. Laughter connects people. People who laugh together, work better together. Companies that want to improve EQ in their managers have found that the use of laughter has helped create better emotional balance. As laughter is a right-brain activity, it stimulates the creation of new ideas, especially through play. Finally it has a part to play in peak performance because it increases the supply of oxygen to the brain. As Dr Otto Warburgh, the 2 times Nobel Prize winner found, the lack of oxygen was the root cause of illness. Laughter raises the oxygen supply to the body, enhancing its functions.

 

So without doubt, laughter has a major role to play in the unfolding of our potential. If we want to boost our happiness levels, we can start by laughing - just for the sheer joy of it. Participants in our laughter training find that when they learn to laugh for no good reason, they tap into a power that’s always been there but couldn’t always be accessed. Through this they boost their bondedness with others and find that laughing together brings them together. They feel more engaged, more positive, more enthusiastic and more able to create a meaningful life in every way.   As we said earlier, what an amazing gift - enjoy it and learn to live life laughing.  

 

References:

 

Here is a very small selection of the very extensive sources on laughter research and some more general reading and on-line sources on the subject:

 

Norman Cousins: Anatomy of an Illness (Bantam); first published 1979.

Fry, W.F. (1992) The physiologic effects of humor, mirth, and laughter. Journal of the American Medical Association, 267(13), 1857-1858.

Berk, L.S., Tan, S.A., Fry, W.F., Napier, B.J., Lee, J.W., Hubbard, R.W., Lewis, J.E., and Eby, W.C. (1989) Neuroendrocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter. American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 298(6), 390-396.

Berk, L. and Tan, S. (1989) Eustress of mirthful laughter modifies natural killer cell activity. Clinical Research, 37, 115.

In a later study Berk and his colleagues presented at the 4th International Conference on Preventive Cardiology in 1997, 24 cardiac rehabilitation patients who watched a 30-minute funny video each day for a year had fewer heart attacks than 24 cardiac patients who did not watch such videos. In the video-watching group, only two had subsequent heart attacks, compared to 10 in the other group.

See summary of Berk’s findings on health benefits taken from an article in Humor and Health Journal 1996at:

Please note that no aspect of this article may be reproduced without prior permission from the authors.

(c) The Laughter School and The Empowering Partnership Ltd. 2006 - 2014