How Laughter Can Reduce Stress and Improve Your Health
A merry heart doeth good like a medicine; but a broken spirit drieth the bones. -Proverbs 17:22
Feeling stressed out, angry or sad? Dread going to work?
Try this: Open your mouth as wide as you can, bug out your eyes, stick out
your tongue, bring your hands up like the claws of a lion, then erupt in a
mighty roar of hearty laughter.
Or this: Sitting down, pretend you're on a roller coaster approaching the
top of the hill. Slowly raise your arms higher and higher, bend back, lift your
feet off the ground, and in a rising tone of voice, exclaim: "Oooooohh." Then,
as the imaginary coaster races downhill, bring your arms crashing down with a
big belly laugh that crescendos as you bend over at the waist.
Even if your laughter seems forced, don't be surprised if you feel much
better. Just as lifting weights and doing aerobic exercises can strengthen the
body and invigorate the spirit, scientists today believe that the act of laughter
can be a physically and emotionally therapeutic force.
The lion and roller coaster laughs, together with about a dozen others, are
now featured exercises in 1000 "laughter clubs" worldwide. A growing trend
first reported on by ABC's Peter Jennings in a l9981 World News Tonight
report, laughter clubs (about 100 in the U.S.) are the absolute latest in stress-
reduction therapy, easing tensions of modern life and enhancing one's health.
And laughter workouts are being effectively used in corporate settings,
hospitals, nursing homes, and even grade schools.
Frame Your Mind To Mirth
Ever since the mid-l960's, when the well-known Saturday Review writer
Norman Cousins was diagnosed with a terminal disease and said he laughed
himself to health by watching "Candid Camera" and funny Marx Brothers
movies (and by ingesting megadoses of vitamin C), scientists have been
tantalized by the possibilities of this mind-body connection.
Four centuries before this, Shakespeare was writing about the healing
power of levity in The Taming of the Shrew: "And frame your mind to mirth
and merriment, which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life."
Today, Dr. William Fry, a psychiatrist, laughter researcher, and professor
emeritus at Stanford University Medical School, agrees with Shakespeare:
"When you're laughing you discharge tension associated with the three primary
negative emotions--anxiety, fear, and anger," says the physician, who has
devoted 30 years to laughter research. "Any of these emotions in excess can
lead to diseases that shorten life. If you can laugh at what you fear, the fear
"Mirthful laughter," he continues, "is a total body activity that conditions
the heart muscle, exercises the diaphragm, abdominal and thoracic muscles,
and augments our respiratory exchange, with more oxygen coming in and
more carbon dioxide going out, improving lung capacity."
Moreover, the stimulation of laughter, he explains, improves circulation
because it elevates the heart rate and blood pressure. "A day's worth of hearty
laughter," Dr. Fry figures, "is about equal to ten minutes on the rowing
"Without question, laughter has a healing and preventive effect on our
health, much like moderate exercise, meditation, prayer, or yoga," adds Dr. Lee
Berk, associate professor of pathology and human anatomy at the School of
Medicine of Loma Linda University, in southern California.
"In fact, the parallels between laughter and exercise are uncanny," says
Berk, a laughter pioneer who reels off a list of health benefits that make
laughter a virtual panacea: "Laughter," he reckons, "can relax the muscles,
increase alertness and memory, reduce physical pain, lessen emotional stress,
boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, improve circulation, increase
vigor, defuse anger, and may even produce endorphins that provide a natural
Such dazzling gains have not gone unnoticed by many U.S. hospitals, which
offer humor rooms, humor wagons (filled with videos, oversized props like
Groucho glasses and stick-on noses, and magic tricks), in-house humor TV
channels, and clowns. Practitioners believe that any of these methods--
through the laughter they produce--can improve respiratory ailments like
asthma and chronic bronchitis (forcing air out of the lungs), and the outlook of
Not to mention cardiac rehabilitation, where laughter may be key, notes
"In a study of cardiac patients asked to watch humorous videos for 30
minutes daily for an entire year, there was an 8.3% recurrence of heart attacks
as compared to 41.7% in the group treated by conventional methods. If I had
come up with a medication that accomplished that--I'd be on my way to
Sweden to get a Nobel Prize! Laughter is FREE--which means we have the
ability to heal ourselves and reduce stress. Isn't that amazing?"
Taking Laughter To Work and School
Small wonder that some companies are now extending themselves beyond
dress-down days, sports tournaments, and ice-cream parties to offering
employees organized laughterfests, aided by more than 20 U.S. humor-
One key player in the U.S. laughter business is psychologist Steve Wilson, a
self-proclaimed "joyologist" who left behind his private practice in Gahanna,
Ohio to co-found both the North American Laughter Club and World Laughter
Tour Inc.,which certifies "laughter leaders."
"When you double over and go limp with laughter and end up telling your
friends-- 'Thanks I needed that!'--you really did need it," exclaims Wilson. "A
laughter burst in a corporate setting," he observes, "gives employees a chance
to discharge tension, it energizes them (better than a coffee break), and boosts
their creativity. And creativity is essential for planning, problem-solving, and
decision-making. Employees who are creative and energized are going to be
Just ask Bobbe White, a business development officer at the State Street
Bank and Trust Co. in Quincy, Illinois, who paces employees through giggles
once a week: "When I first did this at a staff meeting, they thought I was nuts!"
laughs White, who received laughter leader accreditation at Columbus State
Community College, in Ohio, where she was trained by the World Laughter
"Employees," she admits, "were apprehensive and reluctant. But a year
later, they're more relaxed, they laugh more easily, they deal with customer
conflict with less strain--and our laughter club has created a feeling of overall
Bank vice president Glennon Rost, 42, agrees: "At first, I couldn't believe
they were asking me to do this," he chuckles, "but in no time I was laughing all
over the place. Life's too short to spend any of it mad at the world. And you
can't be mad or worry about a bad loan while you're laughing. It's also easier
to approach a colleague later in the day if you've seen them break loose in
The irony is that humans laugh less and less as they mature, attempting to
squelch their childlike giggles, an instinct contrary to their emotional and
"The average American pre-school child laughs about 400 times a day,3
marvels Steve Wilson, "while the average American adult is maybe laughing as
little as 15 times! That's because we're bogged down by stress."
To prevent this happening to a new generation, some grade schools are
addressing the problem head-on, using laughter clubs to reduce peer and
parental pressures. "These kids," says Wilson, "are getting a lifetime
inoculation to protect them from losing their ability to laugh so they don't lose
385 laughs by the time they're grown up. My philosophy of life is: DON'T
POSTPONE JOY. Mark Twain said 'life is uncertain, so eat your dessert first.'"
Laugh For No Reason
The laughter club movement began in Bombay in l995, when an inventive
Indian physician, Dr. Madan Kataria, a longtime student of humor and yoga,
observed that patients who laughed frequently tended to recover more quickly
from illness and stayed healthier longer. He discovered that a session of forced
laughter in the morning could create a sense of well-being and leave behind an
"The idea came to my mind in a flash," says Kataria, in an interview from
Bombay. "I had read so much research about the health benefits of laughter,
yet nobody was laughing enough in our stressful, modern life.
"So one day," he recalls, "I went to a public park at 7 a.m., stood on a
corner, and started laughing at jokes with five people. But then I thought, why
not laugh for no reason--because laugher is infectious."
So it was. Kataria founded a company, Laughter Clubs International, which
has sprouted more than 400 affiliates in India with 50,000 members, most of
whom meet in the early morning at public parks or apartment complexes
before going to work.
Dr. Kataria, who has written a landmark book about his techniques, Laugh
For No Reason [Madhuri International, l999], believes a laughter "prescription"
is the best prevention:
"More than 70% of illnesses--like high blood pressure, heart disease,
anxiety, depression, frequent coughs and colds, peptic ulcers, insomnia,
allergies, asthma, menstrual difficulties, tension headaches, stomach upsets
and even cancer--have some relation to stress," he says.
"A good laugh," he concludes, "brings you instant relaxation and has been
proven to reduce the blood levels of stress hormones like adrenalin, dopamine,
Fake It Till You Make It
Whether in Bombay or Chicago, the format of laughter clubs is the same,
consisting of a 20-minute blend of mirthful laughter, deep breathing and
stretching exercises. No jokes or comedy are required!
Certified laughter leader Margot Escott of Naples Florida, a psychotherapist
and national speaker on humor and healing, prepares participants in the
following way: "I always begin by saying: 'Forced or simulated laughter might
seem phony or fake to you, but the body doesn't know the difference. You get
the same benefits from laughter--whether it's 'real' or not!'"
"Self-induced laughter," adds Dr. Kataria, "is contagious--and very soon the
voluntary laughter does get converted into genuine peals of giggles."
Steve Wilson, who was trained by Dr. Kataria, notes: "You don't even have to
be in the mood to laugh. Motion creates emotion," he believes, "so fake it till
you make it."
At the start of every laughter session, members launch into a three-minute
warm-up, repeating, "Ho-Ho,Ha-Ha-Ha"--a rhythmic chant spoken in unison
with brisk clapping.
"Doing this," says Wilson, "stimulates acupressure points in the palms of
the hands and oxygenates the blood."
Next is deep breathing, a core element borrowed from yoga that releases
tension and relaxes participants.
Then the real fun begins with a group of interactive laughs. The first is
called the Greeting laugh: Look into the eyes of the person next to you.
Exchange a hand-shake or high-five while laughing in a warm, inviting tone.
Then keep changing partners, shaking hands, and laughing.
Any number of improvised laughs may follow, such as the roller coaster
and lion, or the always popular Humming: Laugh with the lips closed, so the
sound of the laugh has to come out of your nose. This makes a humming
sound which resonates throughout the skull. "Fluttering your arms and hands
like wings is optional," says Wilson, "but it's a sure fire way to augment
Other staples includes:
Cocktail laugh: A parody of superficial party behavior. Pretend you're
holding a martini on one hand, shake hands daintily with the other, and then
laugh in a "kiss-kiss," phony, coy, sarcastic manner.
Argument laugh, one of the most cathartic, is especially popular in schools:
Two people face one another, both wagging an accusatory index finger at the
other in an angry posture while vigorously laughing.
This one's a favorite of ten-year-old Nick White, son of laughter leader
Bobbe White: "My older sister [Korey, 12] and I argue a lot and I like doing the
pointing!" Nick reports in a gleeful telephone interview. "When we're doing the
argument laugh, we're not really mad. Laughing makes kids feel better so you
don't worry about anything."
Nick says he also likes the Crazy Dance: You dance any which way, arms
and legs in motion, while you're shaking with laughter.
And don't forget the Penguin: You keep your arms at your sides, your heels
together, and just waddle around and laugh, circulating from member to
Don't participants feel a bit silly roaring like a lion or flapping hands
around like a bird? "The word 'silly' comes from an old English word meaning a
blessing or a gift," says Escott, "so to be silly is to give someone a blessing."
Interspersed between structured giggles are exercises--gentle neck and
shoulder stretches and side-and waist bends, all meant to limber up and tone
the muscles and promote flexibility and relaxation.
Due to the sometimes intense physicality of a laughter workout, Dr.
Kataria and his followers warn that pregnant women, those with uterovaginal
prolapse (weakening of the ligaments supporting the uterus), heart patients,
individuals with high blood pressure, anyone with eye complications (especially
glaucoma), a hernia or hemorrhoids, or those recovering from recent
abdominal surgery should not participate in a laughter session.
Laughter For Seniors and the Chronically Ill
Perhaps its most seductive effect, laughter (like chocolate) nearly always
provides a potent euphoric benefit, reports Dr. Kataria, "because it increases
the release of endorphins--the body's own morphine, natural pain killers,"
producing a "runner's high." Endorphins, he has proven, can lessen pain
perception in those suffering from arthritis, tension headaches, and a myriad
of other maladies faced by seniors or the chronically ill.
As Norman Cousins wrote in his bestselling book, Anatomy of an Illness,4
"ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give
me at least two hours of pain-free sleep."
That's why laughter clubs are becoming increasingly popular in nursing
homes, says laughter leader Barb Templeton, activities director at the Heritage
Health Care and Rehabilitation Center in Naples, Florida, a skilled nursing
home with 97 residents.
"Laughter therapy is an elixir that can absolutely mask pain and cut
through the depression and boredom of being in a nursing home," remarks
Templeton, who says residents who are disabled can fully participate--whether
lying down, or using walkers or wheelchairs.
Talk to Yvonne Cook, a resident of the home, age 62: "I had a stroke and
can't move my left side," she says in a phone interview,"but the exercises help
my strong side and I can laugh sitting down. After laughter club, there are lots
of smiling faces in wheelchairs!"
John DeBruyn, although only age 50, is also a resident at Heritage after
suffering multiple strokes. "Laughter club," he confides, "keeps me out of the
dumps. I see what depression does to people...it's a killer. So I always feel like
Thomas White, age 83 and suffering from Alzheimer's disease, attends
laughter club every week at the urging of his wife Marguerite, a non-resident at
Heritage: "I've noticed he's less tense, more relaxed and happy. We've laughed
all our lives--through 50 years of marriage--and we're not stopping now!"
Finally, for seniors living independently, like Dottie Wilson, age 89, of
Naples, Florida, laughter clubs provide an emotional boost: "The first time I
went to a laughter club, at my church, I was on a high until I went to bed! I
could hardly sleep I was so stimulated," she recalls. "I didn't know any of the
50 people in the group and it was a great icebreaker. Seniors need this. It's
better than a visit to the doctor because it takes the focus away from age and
ailments. You get in touch with your lighter side."
Speaking of icebreakers, nothing works faster than the Ice-Cube Down The
Back, says Steve Wilson: "This laugh was invented by women in their 80's and
90's--members of a laughter club in an assisted living facility in Canton, Ohio.
They tried it out on the day they went on a picnic. You pretend someone just
put an ice-cube down your back, wriggle around, and start giggling."
The Spiritual Component of Laughter
The finale of each laugh workout arrives with three affirmative cheers: The
leader delivers the first punch line by saying: 'We are the happiest people in
the world.' Everyone raises their arms and says, 'Y-e-ee-s!' 'We are the
healthiest people in the world.' 'Y-e-s!' 'We are Laughter Club members! 'Y-e-
e-s!'" Then members stretch their arms out toward the sky, close their eyes
and, in India, pray for world peace.
"If we laughed more, we'd fight less and there would be more peace in the
world," exclaims Steve Wilson, who explains that laughter clubs always feature
an underlying spiritual component:
"If you only derive the physical benefits of laughter, that's good, but not
good enough. We also have to get the spirit of laughter. So when we're cooling
down at the end of a session, the leader always mentions 'emotional
balancing,'" comprised of three practices: On Mondays, group members are
encouraged to pay compliments; Wednesdays are reserved for practicing
gratitude;Fridays are centered on forgiveness.
The end result is no less than a spiritual makeover, promises Wilson: "With
all this, in the face of a setback or disappointment, you can make an RMA--
rapid mental adjustment--and decide to be amazed and amused, rather than
angry or hurt.
"Your anger," he warns in parting, "is your worst enemy--for your heart and
for your attitude. So laughter workouts turn out to be the ultimate cost-
effective therapy. Laughter is free, it's easy to pass around, and it prevents
hardening of the attitudes!!"