April 15, 2016 Meredith Whiten

Laughter Therapy: Why So Serious?

 “Laugh at least once daily and with gusto.”

Close your eyes and think of someone with a really great laugh. Humor is infectious and far more contagious than any cough, sniffle, or sneeze. When laughter is shared, it bonds people together. Individually, a sense of humor can shift your focus, help you manage prickly situations, and overall, set you up for greater success.

Who doesn’t love to laugh? But laughing is more serious than we thought.

The powerful impact of laughter on health was recognized by medical and psychological clinicians some 50 years ago and then quickly incorporated into therapeutic practice. And laughter therapy was born. It revives both the mind and the body, is completely free, and just might be the cure you’ve been looking for. No joke!

Laughter Therapy: A Timeline

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Dr. William F. Fry: The Father of Gelotology

Gelotology, the science of laughter, first began being studied by Dr. Fry in the 1960’s. He proved that deep laughter not only provides good exercise, it decreases the chance of respiratory infection and also causes the human body to produce endorphins.

Dr. Annette Goodheart: The Inventor of Laughter Therapy

Goodheart founded the practice of laughter therapy and has been using humor to treat cancer, AIDS, and depression for over 36 years.

Dr. Hunter (Patch) Adams: Founder/Director – The Gesundheit Institute

“Healing should be a loving human interchange, not a business transaction.”

Immortalized in film by Robin Williams, Patch Adams inspired millions of people by bringing fun and laughter into the hospital. In 1971, Patch founded the Gesundheit Institute, a holistic medical community that provides free medical care to thousands. Dr. Adams is also responsible for the creation of therapeutic clowns worldwide.

Norman Cousins: Author – Anatomy of an Illness

In Cousins’ book, published in ’79, he describes a potentially fatal disease he contracted in 1964. His discovery of the benefits of humor, however, changed his life and the course of his disease. Norman found that ten minutes of laughter each day gave him two hours of pain-free sleep each night.

Dr. Lee Berk: Psycho-Neuro-Immunologist, Loma Linda Medical Center

In 1985, Dr. Berk and his team of researchers studied the physical impacts of laughter. One of his studies on heart attack patients stood out from the rest. In the study, heart attack patients were divided into two groups: one half was placed under standard medical care while the other half watched humorous videos for thirty minutes each day.

After one year, the humor group had fewer arrhythmias, lower blood pressure, lower levels of stress hormones, and required lower doses of medication. The non-humor group had two and a half times more recurrent heart attacks than the humor group (50% vs. 20%).

Dr. Madan Kataria: Creator of Laughter Yoga

Dr. Kataria, a medical doctor from Mumbai, India, discovered that the body cannot differentiate between acted and genuine laughter. From this discovery, Madan created a range of laughter exercises. After further realizing the importance of child-like playfulness, Dr. Kataria developed techniques to stimulate laughter within a group. Laughter Yoga was born and is now an accepted method of meditation and therapeutic practice all over the world.

Oxford University Studies

In September 2011, academics from Oxford University published research demonstrating that continuous laughter can increases a person’s pain threshold by as much as 10%.

Laughter’s Effects on the Brain

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Neurophysiology shows that laughter activates the prefrontal cortex portion of the brain. This is where endorphins are produced after a person indulges in a rewarding activity like a good meal, sex, or when a good joke is told.

Additionally, research proved that parts of the limbic system are also activated through laughter. The limbic system is the primitive part of the brain involved in emotions that enables us to perform the basic functions necessary for survival. In particular, two structures in the limbic system are involved more than others during laughter: the amygdala (the center of emotional behavior and motivation) and the hippocampus.

Researchers also found that laughter produces different brain wave activity than other emotions. To make this discovery, researchers measured the brain waves of 31 college students with an electroencephalograph (EEG) while the students watched funny, distressful, and spiritual videos.

  • The spiritual videos produced strong alpha waves, those associated with restful meditation.
  • Distressful videos produced flat waves that indicated feelings of detachment.
  • The funny videos were the only ones that produced gamma waves.

Gamma is the only frequency that affects every part of the brain. This means that when you’re laughing, you’re essentially engaging your entire brain at once. This state of your entire brain being ‘in sync’ is associated with contentment, being able to think more clearly and having improved focus.

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Science has shown that laughter is a powerful antidote to stress, pain, and conflict. It turns out laughter really might just be the best medicine. Nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance. Humor lightens burdens, connects you to others, and keeps you grounded. The full scale effects of humor can only be seen across a three-fold spread: physically, mentally, and socially.

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Physical Health Benefits

Laughter relaxes the entire body and relieves tension and stress for up to 45 minutes. It also boosts the immune system by decreasing cortisol levels while simultaneously increasing infection-fighting antibodies. Laughing also releases endorphins that not only promote a sense of well-being, but also aid in pain relief. Additionally, laughter protects the heart as it improves blood vessel function and increases blood flow, both of which help to fight against heart attacks and cardiovascular issues.

Mental Health Benefits

Laughing helps maintain a positive, optimistic outlook through difficulties, disappointments, and loss. Laughter also provides courage and strength while dissolving distress. It helps you relax and recharge and can help shift perspective.

Social Benefits

Humor strengthens our relationships with others by triggering positive feelings and forging emotional connections. When we laugh with someone, a bond is created that buffers against disagreements, frustration, and anger.

Laughter as Therapy: The 3 Types

With all the health benefits that come with laughing, it’s no surprise that an entire therapeutic practice has been built around its rewards. Though each has a slightly different approach, all center around a belief that “the art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature itself cures the disease.”

  • 1 on 1 Laughter Therapy

In one on one laughter therapy, an individual’s humor triggers are identified (such as people, things from childhood, situations, movies, jokes, or comedians) by a clinician. Based on that information, the clinician creates a personal humor profile that aids in the therapeutic process. In this setting, the client is taught basic laughter exercises that assist them in dealing with life stressers.

  • Group Laughter Therapy

In a group setting, a laughter therapist uses funny materials such as books, shows, movies, or stories to encourage laughter and discussion among the group. This facilities bonding and a diffused setting for dealing with group conflict.

  • Laughter Yoga and Meditation

Laughter yoga has similarities to traditional yoga meditation. The key difference lies in the focus. In laughter yoga, focusing on humor helps each person to concentrate on the moment.

Laughter yoga goes through a three-stage process of stretching, laughing, and meditative silence. In the first stage, all energy is placed into the stretching of muscles. In the 2nd stage, an instructor guides you through a gradual smile and slowly into a purposeful belly laugh. In the final stage, all laughing is stopped abruptly, and with eyes closed, the focus switches to breathing. The process lasts anywhere from 15-45 minutes and teaches that the benefits of laughter do not always have to be spontaneous.

For a closer look at laughter yoga in action, watch this 3 minute video:

Henry Ward Beecher said that, “A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble on the road.”

A good sense of humor comes easy to some people; but we can also cultivate a better sense of humor by learning to laugh in places we didn’t before. Whether you employ a formal laughter therapy or implement your own laughter therapy into daily life, it turns out that laughing isn’t just a fun thing to do. It’s critical to our health!

So go on, take a deep breath, think of something funny, and let out a good laugh.

You’ll be glad you did.

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