Have you ever heard of laughter therapy?
Also called humor therapy, laughter meditation, or laughter yoga, laughter therapy is a way to relieve stress, boost your immune system, and change your perspective. And even though the mere mention of it sounds like the set-up of a joke, there continues to be valid research supporting the benefits of good belly laughs.
The Difference Between Laughter and Humor
Humor used to be looked upon with disdain, as it was believed to mask true feelings. Historically, it might have also been used to put down other people or express vulgarity not allowed in polite society. But now, emerging research suggests that humor can help people express positive feelings, improve relatability with others, display of love of learning, and increase optimism.
Have you ever said, “I don’t know why that makes me laugh—it just does!” This is because something has tickled your funny bone, usually based on a variety of social, behavioral, and emotional factors. Most experiences are subjective based on an acceptable schema.
For example, people who like wordplay often find puns hysterical. Some people consider slapstick or physical comedy to be a natural knee-slapper. Others like characterizations or impressions (Carol Burnett, Robin Williams, Kate McKinnon); offbeat scenarios (Bojack Horseman, The Simpsons, Atlanta); or situational storytellers (Steve Harvey, Kathleen Madigan, John Mulaney). It’s hard to use science to analyze exactly why we find certain things funny and others not, but the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder is trying to figure it out.
However, researchers continue to explore the psychological and physiological result of humor: laughter. This physical reaction to humor occurs mainly in the nervous system:
- When you laugh, you prevent the “fight or flight” stress response of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Laughter also releases trapped tension or aggressive feelings due to over-stimulation of the SNS.
- Your laughter activates the “rest and digest” response of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which releases calming signals throughout the mind and body. A strong belly laugh engages the diaphragm, which in turn stimulates the vagus nerve: an important cranial nerve responsible for monitoring many essential physiological functions. The PNS balances the over-stressed SNS.
Basically, there are many interconnected positive aspects of your mind and body that regular laughter improves. The study of this is called gelotology. Since the 1960s, the medical community has tried it in various situations:
- For nearly 30 years, Dr. Lee Berk studied the effects of laughter on gamma brain frequencies, which helps coordinate neuron activity.
- Recovering brain health is one reason why more frequent laugher may help people overcoming substance abuse.
- Remember the movie Patch Adams? It was based on the life of physician Hunter Campbell, who used “humor-infused care” to help thousands of patients heal. He continues this work and global humanitarian efforts through the Gesundheit Institute.
- Clinical evidence demonstrates how laughter is an accessible tool for wellness, and why regular chuffs and giggles enhance senior citizen health.
- Patients at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America follow a “laughter prescription” as part of their fitness routine.
- The HeartMD Institute recommends including not just humor, but full-on laughter as a therapeutic method of boosting the immune system and other vital health components.
- Even the Mayo Clinic outlines a long list of mental, emotional, and physical benefits provided by daily laugh habits and provides easy tips to help you expand your “practice.”
Laughter Online University has a free fact sheet that explains the benefits of laughter therapy and why it works.
How to Get Started with Laughter Therapy
No one likes to be forced to smile, but in many situations, forced laughter is the key that starts a rollicking joyride.
Specific exercises designed to get the snorts, chortles, and cackles moving may feel odd at first, but the research supports one important point: your body doesn’t know the difference between a fake physical laugh and one induced by humor—and the physiological effects of both are the same. All laughs become real eventually within a few minutes, especially in a group of people.
- One exercise is to simply start your day with a smile. When you look in the mirror, smile as you brush your teeth, after shaving, while putting on makeup, and fixing your hair. Continue the practice by smiling at the people you encounter throughout the day. You might feel goofy at first, but deliberate effort over time makes the action more real and natural.
- Another routine practice is to trigger your laugh response with a few jumpstarts. Try this 10-minute “laugh along” video provided by Robert Rivest.
- If you’re wondering about how silly laughing exercises are with a group of people, this video from Pine Tribe provides a sneak peek.
- Finally, if you’re stressing about particular concerns, turn to a quick pick-me-up in the form of a comedic podcast, TV show, or other forms of media. This, too, may feel forced at first, and initially appear to be a method of avoiding your feelings. But remember: after you start laughing, your body and mind will be calm and uplifted. Then, you’ll have a better disposition to use the tools you learned during inpatient rehabilitation to handle what troubles you in a healthful way.
Find Group Support Through Willingway
Okay, so you may not want to stand around in a group laughing for no reason. But if you attend Willingway’s Continuing Care Community Groups, you’ll receive the benefit of therapeutic fellowship, hope, and authentic interaction—all reasons enough to make you smile.