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Benefits of Smiling and Laughter Yoga

Children are seen to laugh over 300 times a day, but as adults we typically laugh no more than 15 times. What is it that happens to us, as we grow older? Where does that spirit of playfulness and joy disappear?

Nicholas Cohen reminds us of the chemical and hormonal changes that occur in the body and brain when we are stressed or unhappy. If this is the impact (or sometimes consequence) of feeling unease, can it not also work in reverse? Perhaps engaging in positive mood states, through smiles and laughter, can bring about positive changes in our blood and neurochemistry? There are findings to suggest this is very much so, and I’d like to share them with you.

Two leading figures in this field have been Norman Cousins, author of the book “Anatomy of Illness as Perceived by the Patient” and Dr Madan Kataria, the founder of Laughter Yoga. It was in 1979 that Norman Cousins was battling a connective tissue disease and working out how he may manage the pain and debilitation his illness caused. He documented the fact that 10mins of “genuine belly laughter” had an analgesic effect, affording him almost 2hrs of pain free sleep.

Dr Kataria, a medical doctor in his own right, started lunch time comedy clubs in green areas of the city of Mumbai. Initially, the group would tell jokes, but when these dried up, Dr Kataria developed the novel idea of pretend laughter. He developed silly games, funny gestures, child-like eye contact and “ho-ho, hah-hah-hah” type chants! There were a host of playful games, such as pulling your pockets out and laughing (‘no money laughter’) or pouring milk between two imaginary jugs, and drinking from the jug tipped down towards the mouth (‘milk-shake laughter’). Dr Kataria puts it well, when he says “Laughter is a choice. It is a connector of people with no barriers and no language”. Those who participated in his exercises discovered that the body could not distinguish between pretend and real laughter, as both had the same positive effects, with planned laughter becoming spontaneous laughter within a few short minutes.

Research Findings

The outcomes from research into Laughter Yoga is promising. In one study, Kaur and Walia engaged Nursing students in daily laughter sessions for 15-20 mins, over 10 days. They reported on statistically significant and positive reductions in stress levels. A 2012 study by Prof Robin Dunbar and his team at the Experimental Psychology Department (University of Oxford) found that laughter triggers the release of endorphins, which are the body’s natural anti-depressants. The same study found a 10% increase in pain thresholds within subjects, which they attributed to engagement with laughter sessions.

There are similar studies with adults over the age of 65yrs, who were assigned a laughter therapy group once weekly for 4months, where 48 participants had significantly better outcomes on depression and sleep scales, together with improved results in mini-mental state examinations, as compared to 61 adults who were not offered the laughter session (a control group).

In a randomised control trial in an oncology setting, 62 cancer patients were randomly split between a laughter therapy group (a total of 33 patients), and a waiting list for laughter therapy group (a total of 29 patients). The therapy group were given 3 laughter sessions, lasting 60mins a time. The laughter therapy group made beneficial gains in mood and self-esteem (Kim et al 2015).

There are a host of studies that additionally show couples who can laugh through stressful conversations with one another, cut through the tensions they feel. These couples are also more likely to be those who report greater relationship satisfaction and longevity to their partnership. Indeed, there are more studies that show smiling and laughing with one another in social contexts leads to a sense of greater connectivity, attraction and sense of support network, such that we do not feel alone with our problems and also have a sense that as a collective, we will get through. After all, as the Neuroscientist Sophie Scott says, laughter communicates more than words can say – "a sense of agreement, shared experience, affection and affiliation".

How Laughter Helps

We all know the saying, when things are tough – “if you don’t laugh, you’d have to cry!” Laughter seems to be a de-escalator of stress, and a way of releasing tension. In the vein of Mindfulness philosophy, which is becoming so popular today, laughter is incredibly 'present moment focussed' – just consider that when you are laughing, you really can’t do or think about anything else!

In the context of