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Laughter has serious benefits

10 Jul 2011 | Joe Hoare

"We don't laugh because we're happy, we're happy because we laugh" - William James

Do we laugh enough or should we learn to laugh more? Joyful, good-natured, 'mirthful' laughter is a tonic for our body, mind, emotions, and spirit. Whether we use it as a distraction, to cheer ourselves up, or as a practice to energise and enthuse us, laughing impacts every part of us. In many ways it is the ultimate drug, with no harmful side-effects.

On a physical level, laughter stimulates our cardiovascular and pulmonary systems by giving our hearts and lungs a vigorous workout. It stimulates blood flow, oxygenates our blood and energises our whole physical system even if we're hospitalised. The US doctor Patch Adams has been using it professionally for years.

Its endorphin-triggering effect makes laughter a strong painkiller for emotional and mental pain, as well as physical. It has been proven that higher levels of pain can be readily tolerated and the healing process is speeded up. Both the Norman Cousins experience, described in his classic best seller 'Anatomy of an Illness', and the current RX Laughter project with children in UCLA hospital in Los Angeles provide the evidence. 

Psychologically, laughter is the antithesis of depression. If we're feeling any anxiety, it is an excellent antidote. In fact, in 2002 in Austria Dr Koutek started using the sound of spontaneous group laughter as part of his treatment for patients with depression. In our Bristol laughter club there are countless examples of people whose lives have benefitted from the 'lightness' that laughter induces. People's faces change, their body language and posture become more open and relaxed, their communication becomes more playful and spontaneous. Even the simple smiling exercise based on the 1988 F. Strack, L.L. Martin and S. Stepper's pencil exercise produces lasting results. All you need do is smile genuinely three times a day for at least 10-15 seconds and some people find it transforms their lives.

Laughter and playfulness, in turn, unlock our natural creativity. "You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation" said Plato. Creativity is an essential part of a fun-filled life and helps neuroplasticity, our brain's learning ability, by strengthening mental flexibility and resilience. Because of this - as we see in Martin Seligman's Positive Psychology - optimism, positivity and happiness become learnable skills. In short, we learn to become happier.

On the self-development path, the practice of laughter is the practice of joyfulness. Ancient traditions as well as new ones encourage us to practice laughing - with a sense of willingness. What ancient traditions intuited and experienced, and neuroplasticity shows, is a practice is learning new skills until they become second nature. Current thinking is that it might be only 21 days, as in the Chopra 21-day meditation challenge. The key ingredients are single-mindedness, perseverance and tenacity to keep going until you become aware of the differences in your life. There are numerous recent psychological studies which show the beneficial impact of smiling especially when this is the genuine 'Duchenne' smile which uses the involuntary orbicularis oculi muscles. This genuine smile encourages an empathetic response and consequently stimulates sociability.

Top tips to laugh more:

  1. Look for laughter and laughter will find you. Look for as many opportunities to smile and laugh in your day, and importantly, communicate them. Not only will you feel better, you will also be encouraging a positive ripple in others too.
  2. If it will be funny later, it's funny now. Often we look back and laugh at things. Can we laugh at them now instead?
  3. Start your day with a laugh. This is both a Zen and a Hawaiian practice. No matter what yesterday delivered, start today with a chuckle, a kinaesthetic version of a positive affirmation. Why? We get the endorphins. We may then feel more upbeat and better equipped for your day ahead. Its worth remembering, when we're feeling really rough, that's the time we need our endorphins most.
  4. Fake it till you make it. Feeling grumpy? Sluggish? Irritable? When you're ready to change your mood, smile and laugh, even if you don't yet feel like it. Your system will release endorphins anyway because it can't tell the difference between the real joyful laugh and a fake one. The key is your willingness.

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Joe Hoare is an expert in laughter and runs Laughter Retreats and Laughter Facilitation courses. www.joehoare.co.uk

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