Laughter for Health and Wellbeing
by Nirmala Raniga
Human beings are social creatures. It is in our nature to connect with other people and form cooperative communities. One way we connect with others is through laughter. Forging relationships through lighthearted conversation and play is an important component of a healthy lifestyle, and is important for our overall wellbeing.
Robert Frost said: “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” Laughter is a way to help mitigate stress and alleviate pain. In fact, laughter is the foundation of a healing technique known as laughter, or humour, therapy. Use of this form of therapy has been recorded as early as the 1200s. American author, Norman Cousins, is largely credited with reigniting an interest in laughter therapy through his book, Anatomy of an Illness. Published in 1979, this groundbreaking work addressed Cousins’ recovery from serious illness by watching comedies that simply made him laugh.
Laughter’s healing effects have been the subject of numerous before-and-after studies in which researchers discovered that laughter helped reduce pain and reverse the harmful biological consequences of stress. Benefits of laughter include improved immune function, cardiovascular health, digestion, cognitive functioning, sleep, and increased dopamine and endorphin levels in the brain. In light of such positive findings, many health care systems now include laughter therapy as part of patients’ comprehensive care plans for many different health issues.
In the field of yoga, laughter yoga has enjoyed increasing popularity. Laughter yoga classes and events generally consist of laughing for 10 or 15 minutes. Practitioners are encouraged to belly laugh loudly and freely. The philosophy underlying such classes has to do with our maintaining a childlike viewpoint of the world and being open and playful. Because these deep laughing exercises engage the diaphragm, laughter yoga is akin to pranayama, or yogic breathing techniques, which gently but powerfully align the mind, body, and spirit.
The endorphins in the brain released from laughter help us form social bonds as laughter spreads from person to person. As a result, we often find ourselves laughing when we spend time engaged in humorous conversation or see a funny movie with friends. This feels good to our body and mind, enhancing our feelings of wellbeing.
Being able to laugh in life is particularly beneficial when one is recovering from addiction. The biology of addiction involves the pleasure and reward circuitry of the human brain. The use of addictive substances can create a feeling of euphoria and reward, which drives the individual to use these substances repeatedly.
By spending time simply laughing, as part of the recovery process, individuals are able to help the brain rewire itself, finding reward, not in using substances that yield only temporary pleasure, but by drawing on the body’s own natural ability to attain good feelings – in a healthy way.
Additionally, those in recovery are learning anew how to build healthy relationships and communities. Finding ways to laugh with others can help them begin to create healthy connections with the people in their lives, and cultivate new friendships.
Life does not always immediately provide us with obviously humorous situations. Much like finding time and ways to exercise, we sometimes need to be deliberate in making ourselves laugh. Reading a funny book, or watching a funny TV show or movie are simple ways to find humour and cultivate laughter. We can also join a laughter yoga class or create a laughter group if one is not readily available. Spending time in the company of those we truly enjoy and feel close to is another way we can laugh with others. We can also recount our day and find the lighthearted moments and encounters we may have experienced.
As we learn to laugh at ourselves and life in healthy ways, we will find that we handle stress with greater ease; move past negative emotions like depression and anxiety more readily; and build deeper, more meaningful relationships—all wonderful and important benefits that will naturally enrich our lives.
“I have been confronted with many difficulties throughout the course of my life, and my country is going through a critical period. But I laugh often, and my laughter is contagious.” ~My Spiritual Journey – the Dalai Lama