Laughter therapy (also known as laughter coaching or laughter yoga) involves forcing yourself to laugh, in order to experience the physical and mental benefits associated with spontaneous laughter. This can allegedly relieve stress, calm depression and even harden abdominal muscles. It’s also arguably the most awkward thing I’ve ever seen, which is saying a lot from someone who once took a 50-minute face yoga class over Skype.
Can you really laugh your way to a better life, though? Or are the people selling the idea just laughing all the way to the bank? As you might expect, psychologist and self-proclaimed joyologist Steve Wilson, president and founder of World Laughter Tour, is a believer. “I got turned on to the potential of teaching people about the psychology of humor in 1984,” he tells me.
This was the same year that Anatomy of an Illness was released on television, chronicling the strange case of Norman Cousins, an American journalist who believed that laughter could have profound healing effects. Famously, in 1964, Cousins was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritis-like disease that left him in constant pain and reportedly prompted his doctors to give him only a few months to live. Within six months, though, Cousins was back on his feet, and within two years, he made a full-time return to his job as editor at the Saturday Review. He claimed that extremely high doses of vitamin C and self-induced bouts of laughter were what cured him.
Cousins’ beliefs have since been met with extreme criticism, with many arguing that such unscientific conclusions might encourage people who need real medical help to opt for these less conventional — and far less effective — methods instead. In 1980, New York City University sociologist Florence Ruderman discredited the notion that laughing cured Cousins in a lengthy (and incredibly thorough) article for Commentary. “It seems entirely possible that what Cousins had was an acute attack of an arthritic condition which then subsided, slowly, but quite naturally,” she wrote.
In hindsight, then, the idea that laughing cured Cousins of a debilitating disease is, well, laughable. But his writings can be at least partly credited for the popularity of laughter therapy today (although, as Wilson points out, Tibetan monks were doing similar laughter exercises up to 5,000 years ago).
Wilson doesn’t claim that giggling trumps modern medicine, but he does suggest that laughter therapy can help us get back in touch with our innate sense of humor, which he says was taken from us back when our nation was founded:
“We live in a culture, especially in North America, but maybe in other places, too, that has so many wrong-headed ideas about fun, laughter and humor. Some of the anthropology people have traced it back to Puritan Protestantism. When the Puritans came here, they brought a religion that said hard work is salvation and play is the Devil’s tool. We won’t wear makeup, we won’t have dancing, there will be no whistling and you can wipe that smile off your face if you want to get to Heaven. That’s deep within the psyche, certainly within the United States.”
Wilson argues that these teachings go against our instinctive desire to laugh and the benefits that acting on that desire can provide. “We now have evidence that human beings are hardwired to laugh,” he explains, remarking that babies laugh long before they learn how to speak or even understand jokes.
So laughter therapy — at least for Wilson — is all about forcing yourself to laugh when society teaches you otherwise, and he believes that doing so, in addition to making you happier, can feasibly reduce the killer effects of stress. One recent study, which examined the effects of laughter therapy on volunteers helping families diagnosed with HIV, found that it really can work: “Through daily exposure to laughter sessions, the care workers experienced more positive emotions, improved social relationships and improved ways of coping as well as lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress,” the researchers concluded. “Laughter is a possible resource that is easily available and can be a low-cost strategy to reduce stress and counteract negative emotions among people working in highly emotional environments.”
Several years prior, another study looked at the physical effects of laughter and found that it releases endorphins that reduce vascular inflammation, which can protect your blood vessels and heart muscles from the harmful effects of cardiovascular disease. The researchers even concluded, “Mirthful laughter may serve as a useful and important vehicle for the promotion of vascular health.”
So yeah: There’s research out there that suggests laughter — and therefore, we can suppose, laughter therapy — really can have both positive mental and physical effects. “The short answer is yes,” says psychologist Margaret Wehrenberg, author of The 10 Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques, when I ask her if laughter therapy serves any purpose. “Laughter exerts positive impacts by decreasing stress-inducing neurochemicals, such as cortisol. Also, it’s a great simulator of neurochemicals that create positive feelings: It increases levels of dopamine, the neurochemical that stimulates feelings of reward and pleasure, and stimulates the release of serotonin, which can improve mood and reduce pain.”
Wehrenberg also points me toward another recent study that goes so far as to suggest that laughter therapy can effectively treat depression. “Laughter therapy is a noninvasive and non-pharmacological alternative treatment for stress and depression, representative cases that have a negative influence on mental health,” the researchers write. “In conclusion, laughter therapy is effective and scientifically supported as a single or adjuvant therapy.”
Which sounds fine and all, apart from the fact that surely nothing’s going to make you do a legit belly laugh on cue, every time. But apparently, that doesn’t matter: Just like a bad dinner party, fake laughter will see you through. One study even shows that forced laughter can increase your Heart Rate Variance, which correlates to feeling calmer and more in control of your emotions. In fact, many leading psychologists argue that Heart Rate Variance is one of the best ways to measure someone’s well-being.
As laughter yoga guru Liliana De Leo said during her recent TED Talk, “Fake it till you make it. But even if you don’t make it, it doesn’t matter, because science proves that, regardless of whether the laughter is real or fake, the body makes no distinction.”
So next time you force yourself to laugh during that one-on-one with your painfully unfunny boss, take some solace in the fact that they’re actually doing you a favor.