I love when science supports clichés. Truly. A few blogs ago I discussed the vital relationship between food and mood which supports the old adage, “You are what you eat.” Another popular saying is, “Laughter is the best medicine.” Well, guess what? It is, and science is finally catching up to something we innately knew for thousands of years.
When I talk about laughter as medicine, I like to start by describing my first laughter yoga session. I randomly learned about laughter yoga by surfing the internet. At first, I was puzzled. Laughter yoga? That sounds a little crazy! But, like many crazy things, it also sounded a little fun, so I decided to attend a laughter yoga session. After researching online, I read about a “laughter club” that met in Times Square, NYC, every Wednesday in the early evening. It was free and open to the public- meaning, I was there the following Wednesday. At 4:45 PM on the subsequent Wednesday, I entered an office building, jumped in the elevator and took it up to my designated floor. When the elevator doors opened, I entered a spacious office, where a few people in business attire were waiting. They looked stressed, contemplative and eager to start…something. I was confused. No one looked like they were dressed for “laughter yoga.” Of course, I had no idea if proper attire even existed for laughter yoga. Clown pants and a red nose? I had on a pair of yoga pants and a tank top- essentially what I wore to all yoga classes. From what the others were wearing, I started to think I had the wrong floor and was crashing an office meeting of some sort. “Can I help you?” A secretary asked from behind a desk, temporary knocking me out of my own head.
“Oh,” I muttered. “I think so. Um, I’m here, for, um.., well, this must be the wrong floor, but, um, I’m here for laughter yoga?” I instantly felt like an awkward, idiotic clown-wannabe. Clearly no one here did laughter yoga. They looked way too serious.
The secretary’s face lit up. She nodded and answered, “Of course! You have the right place. People will be filling up the room shortly and it will start right at 5!”
My eyes bulged in response, and I slowly nodded while glancing at the business folks again, wondering if I should bolt. This isn’t like any other yoga class I’ve attended, I thought. What if “laughter yoga” is code for some strange cult? I breathed, told myself I was being paranoid and ordered myself to stay and give it a chance. And, boy, am I glad I did. Within minutes, the office room filled with people of all different ages sporting a variety of wardrobes. I believe the youngest were two girls in school uniforms who looked around 10 or 11, and the oldest participants were a few eccentrically-clad ladies in their eighties or nineties. At 5 pm, a man in a shirt, tie and slacks introduced himself as today’s “laughter leader” and told us that we would begin with a laughter dance, which he then amusingly demonstrated. In seconds, we were parading around in a circle while mimicking his laughter dance while clapping and singing, “HO, HO, HA, HA, HA!” I felt utterly bizarre and almost embarrassed, but after a few minutes, I was right at home laughing for no reason and frolicking with laughing strangers. As our laughter leader demonstrated more combined laughter and breathing drills, and as we mimicked each one, I felt a great sense of relief. An undeniable joy filled my inner being and though I didn’t know any of my laughter yoga participants, I felt connected to all of them just by laughing with them. It was then that I truly learned the power of laughter. You can forget my laughter yoga story, but please never forget this: Laughter is the sustenance for each of our souls and the glue that binds our souls together.
At the completion of the session, my endorphins were soaring. Dopamine with wings, I tell ya! I felt better than I had in months and almost manic, but manic in a good way. ;) As I walked back to my apartment, I asked myself, “What in the world just happened in there?” The best way to find out was to talk to the source, so a few weeks later, I wrote to Dr. Kataria, M.D., the founder of laughter yoga, and asked him if he’d be willing to do an interview for a newsletter I edit, the Alternative Mental Health News. He eagerly agreed. My first question to him was, “What exactly is laughter yoga?”
Dr. Kataria: “Laughter Yoga is a unique idea where anyone can laugh for no reason. We don’t need jokes, comedy or even a sense of humor to laugh. We are laughing in a group, and we share laughter and exercises by simulated laughter. And when we look at each other and make eye contact with other people, laughter becomes genuine and real laughter. The reason we call it laughter yoga is because we combine laughter exercises with deep breathing exercises from yoga, and that brings more oxygen to your body and brain and makes you feel more energized. The idea of laughter yoga is based on the science that your body can’t tell the difference between laughing for real or pretend laughter. You get the same health benefits from laughter, whether you are laughing for real or just simulating it. We started laughter yoga in India in 1995. We started laughter clubs and now there are laughter clubs in more than 70 countries.”
I then asked him, “Why, as a medical doctor, would you invent something like laughter yoga?”
Dr. Kataria answered, “I was writing an article for a health magazine. I used to edit a magazine called, My Doctor, and I started writing an article, “Laughter is the best medicine,” so I was researching the benefits of laughter. I found so many benefits. Also, nobody laughs . I was stressed out to—writing a publication, and I thought, “Oh I need to laugh more,” so it came to my mind, “Why not start a laughter club?” So I went to a public park near my house and started a laughter club. People would see me and say, “Hey doc, are you okay?” and I’d say, “Yes I’m okay.” Most people hesitate with the idea of laughing in the park. We started with 5 people, and I would tell jokes in the beginning. The attendance started growing. The jokes became negative and bad, though, and people said to stop the laughter club. I said, “No. Don’t stop the club. We’ll find a way to laugh without jokes.” Someone asked, “How?” I said, “I don’t know , I’ll find out.” I was reading a book about emotions and health, and I read something beautiful about laughter: “If you can’t laugh, begin laughing” Fake laughter. So we started faking laughter! We had about 50 people, and we would just start laughing and eventually fake laughter becomes real laughter.”
Laughter has a plethora of physical benefits that are beyond the scope of this blob, but since our moods are best when our bodies are healthy and not sick, if you’d like to learn more about the physical benefits of laughter, I’d recommend reading one of Dr. Paul Mcghee’s books or looking into research by Dr. Berk from Loma Linda University, or the work of Dr. Fry, from the University of Maryland. My focus for this blog is the mental benefits from laughing, so I asked Dr. Kataria to list some of them.
Dr. Kataria: “Laughter can change your mood within seconds by releasing chemicals in your brain called endorphins, and if your mood is good, you do everything well. Laughter unwinds the negative effects of stress, and 80-90% of illnesses are due to stress. Laughter is also a great way to connect to people. The quality of life depends on the quality of relationships you have, and laughter builds very strong relationships! Everyone wants to be with the happy people. Nobody wants to be with the grumpy person. Laughter keeps you in a positive mental state because we are surrounded by negativity every day and if you keep your mind positive by laughing every day you will have a better life. Laughter is not a cure for depression, but it helps. I have seen hundreds of depressed people all over the world and by joining laughter yoga classes they can release a lot of emotions and get over depression quickly. Psychiatrists are also referring patients to laughter yoga.
Most of the clinical studies I’ve read report conflicting data on whether laughter stimulates endorphin production, however, there is enough anecdotal evidence for me to be a fan of the theory. There’s also evidence that laughter triggers our brains’ pleasure centers to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that enhances mood and reduces the sensation of pain. A hearty laugh also causes progressive muscle relaxation, and since our muscles become exceedingly tense during stressful moments, laughter can serve as a great reducer of stress. Laughter, and humor-producing activities function as distractions. They distract us from our moodiness or depressed states and actively force us into a positive state of being. Even sub-populations of critically ill patients benefit from laughter therapy. A small pilot study analyzing the effects of laughter yoga on patients about to undergo organ transplants found that laughter yoga caused an immediate improvement in their mood and helped them control their long-term anxiety. A study at Feinberg University in Chicago analyzed sense of humor in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The study found that a high sense of humor correlated with a better quality of life and fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.
There’s no doubt that laughter and humor are effective coping mechanisms and great ways to manage stress. Freud considered them some of the greatest coping mechanisms, and when we can better cope with life’s obstacles, we stand a greater chance of maintaining a positive, healthy mood, of successfully overcoming our obstacles and of avoiding the paralysis of depression and sadness. When I hear someone say, “But my life is so bad. I can’t laugh,” I point to people diagnosed with terminal illnesses who laugh, prisoners of war and severely injured soldiers who used and use laughing as a coping mechanism, and others who bore the brunt of tragedies yet found a way to laugh. There’s no excuse. We all can laugh.