Life has been all too serious over the last couple of years, but author Deborah Gray reveals that laughter is an essential part of living.
It’s lockdown January 2021 and I’m sitting alone in a spot close to the radiator in the late afternoon gloom. Gazing out at the skeletal trees twisting and whistling in the wind, I realise that I want to do the same – twist, shout and, most of all, laugh. Intuitively, I know that I need a good belly laugh.
Why is it that we need to laugh? Indeed, what is laughter? Why does it make us feel so much better? And the question of the moment, how do you find laughter?
Laughter and stress
Laughter has been proven to have a profound effect on our body, mind and spirit. It’s a form of cardiovascular exercise that encourages blood to flow more quickly, thus delivering more oxygen to our cells, making our heartbeat stronger and releasing endorphins into our brain. It’s a pulmonary exercise, encouraging us to use deep diaphragmatic breathing, and to exhale fully. It also gives our abs a workout.
A rollicking laugh comes in waves, increasing and decreasing blood pressure. This relaxes the lining of the blood vessels (endothelium), allowing more blood to flow, so lowering your overall blood pressure.
We now know that negative thoughts affect levels of cortisol, dopamine and serotonin in the brain. They can also activate the thalamus, triggering the fight or flight response. By decreasing these reactions, laughter can mitigate the effects of stress and improve brain function. We know that a good laugh improves our mood, but studies show that this is successful even in the fight against clinical depression.
Laughter and the effect on the immune system
Regular laughing stimulates the immune system by increasing levels of natural killer (NK) cells and antibodies. These changes lay behind claims that laughter can potentially help to fight more-serious illnesses and reduce pain.
In one study, Dr Mary Bennett, at Indiana State University, measured the chemical reactions that took place in healthy women who laughed at funny films and a group that watched a tourism film. She found that those who laughed had their immune system significantly boosted. She concluded that “the use of humour to stimulate laughter could be an effective complementary therapy to decrease stress and improve natural killer cell activity in people with viral illness or cancer.”
According to Lotte Mikkelsen, Laughter Ambassador, and the UK’s first Laughter Yoga Master Trainer, “it’s not just the endorphins, it’s numerous things that happen in your body to support all the different systems, your immune system, your central nervous system, your reproductive system, there are so many things that happen to us when we’re laughing. So why is this not recognised and prescribed by doctors?”
Laughter and creativity
There is nothing more joyous than a baby’s laugh. As we grow up most of us begin to censor our laughter. By the time we are adults we take ourselves and life seriously, laughing only in socially acceptable situations.
We need to rediscover that inner child and the playfulness that helped us learn about the world. Laughter yoga teacher, Melanie Bloch, suggests that we need to “take the situations we find ourselves in seriously, but take ourselves more lightly, because it’s in that place of letting go and surrender that creative solutions and inspiration come in.”
Social benefits to laughing
Laughter creates social bonds and a well-timed joke can transform the mood in a meeting, in a bar, even in a medical consulting room. By triggering positive feelings, it strengthens our relationships, develops emotional connections and helps to break down cultural barriers. Again, not being too earnest and being able to find humour in ourselves endears us to others. Likewise, looking for the dark humour in difficult circumstances can ease tension; it creates unity against the common adversity.
If you are in the market for a new partner, then being good at laughing will make you more attractive. And, if you’re in a relationship, laughter will help maintain it. Apparently, women laugh 125% more than men, which may explain all those times when a group of women are in fits of giggles, but don’t know why.
In 1995, the Indian doctor, Madan Kataria, realising the health benefits of laughter, gathered a group of five people together to tell jokes and laugh. When the jokes grew thin, he discovered research that proved the brain cannot tell the difference between real and pretend laughter. He created exercises and games, which he interspersed with yogic pranayama (breathing) exercises, in order to deepen the experience.
That remains at the heart of laughter yoga – the ego-busting, induced laughter, the playful games, the infectious nature of laughing with others. Lotte explains, “while laughing, the mind clears and worries are pushed aside. So it’s a mindful practice. There’s so much depth to it beyond the exercise. In recognising the higher consciousness, the spiritual aspects of laughter, it brings us closer to everything that is.”
“In acceptance there is a deeper peace,” Melanie concludes. Like all mindful practices, laughter yoga needs to be part of our regular, preferably daily, routines in order to be effective.
There are many laughter clubs across the country and you can check out the website laughteryoga.co.uk to track down the nearest one to you. Alternatively, you could sign up to an online Skype laughter club or one via the telephone.
Three benefits of laughter
- Laughter gives the body a cardiovascular workout, releasing stress-busting hormones.
- It releases our inner playfulness and challenges our ego.
- It improves our mood, as well as our relationships.