Sharon Danzger admits to having been a little skeptical when a member of her women's business networking group extolled the health benefits of laughing on purpose. When the woman offered to teach the group to laugh when nothing was funny—no jokes told or comedy movie screened—"I was hesitant," Danzger says.
After all, the group was made up of people who didn't know each other very well. Some men were going to attend the laughter session, too. How could they all just start laughing together for no reason?
A good laugh, like a good cry, has long been thought to be the right medicine at certain moments. Now scientists are exploring how regular laughing can do more than just put a smile on your face.
"After laughing, you have a relaxation response (in your body). Everything goes down—heart rate, blood pressure, your muscles relax," says Mary Bennett, PhD, APRN, whose research has investigated how humor and laughter affect physical and psychological well-being.
Studies show that laughter can: lower inflammation levels in people with rheumatoid arthritis; improve levels of good (HDL) cholesterol and reduce inflammation in diabetics with high blood pressure and high cholesterol; decrease stress and pain; and expand blood vessels and increase healthy blood flow.
"We're starting to document that this (laughter's positive influence on health) isn't just an old wives' tale," says Bennett, who is director of the Western Kentucky University School of Nursing in Bowling Green, Kentucky. "It does seem to make a difference."
All together now
Danzger's curiosity about using laughter for better health finally won out. She decided to attend the session.
"Everyone has stress in their lives," says Danzger, who has four children under age 12 and runs a professional organizing business in Tenafly, NJ. "I don't think we set aside time to laugh."
The group met for 45 minutes. The leader took them through stretching exercises, yoga breathing and exercises in which they did different types of laughter. "In the beginning, you fake it," Danzger says. As the exercises progressed, "it induced real laughter." The session finished with a few minutes of quiet meditation.
"Everyone was so happy at the end," says Danzger. "The laughter gets so much stuff out of your head...and gets you to a very peaceful, serene place."
The group held two sessions, and Danzger hopes to do more on her own. "It's a very freeing, joyous experience," she says.
Faking it helps make it
There's a difference, Bennett notes, between humor (a mental process) and outright laughing, a physical activity that triggers physiological reactions.
In one study, Bennett and her colleagues measured whether watching a funny video would affect the immune systems of a group of adult women. While stress levels went down for the group, "only the people who physically laughed out loud had an increase in natural-killer (NK) cell activity," she says. NK cells are frontline responders in the body's immune system. Low NK cell activity makes you more susceptible to disease and puts people with cancer or HIV at greater risk of death.
"If you're getting a good belly laugh every few minutes, you're improving your immune function," Bennett says.
Although humor and laughter are two separate things, laughing because you think something is funny and learned laughter—such as Danzger practiced in her group sessions—both cause the same positive physical responses.
So why should you learn how to laugh when you've been laughing naturally all your life?
First, because humor—especially belly-laugh-producing humor—isn't the same for everyone. Consider the range of what makes people laugh: scan the cable TV channels and you're likely to see one or two programs that cause you to chuckle out loud at least once. There are probably many more shows that you don't find funny at all, yet millions of people watch those programs and laugh heartily.
What's more, humor can't always be summoned on demand. When you're depressed, worried, sad or stressed out, humorous entertainment or conversation might not make you guffaw.
"Humor is so dependent upon our culture and our mood at the moment," says Judy L. Young, a laughter coach and educator in Wichita, KS, who coauthored a study of "purposeful aerobic laughter"—or laughter without humor. "We teach you how to laugh on your own, which is very helpful when people are in a place in life where they have nothing to laugh about."
The research Young and her coauthors conducted focused on a workplace laughter group that met for 15-minute sessions over 15 consecutive workdays. During the regimen, participants showed significant increases in optimism, self-awareness, positive emotions, social identification and more—gains they maintained even after the study ended.
"Laughter without humor can literally make you feel better, think better and function better," says Young, who now takes her laughter exercise program to businesses, health care groups and others.
Many of today's laughter groups have their roots in a practice called Laughter Yoga, which combines "laughter for no reason" exercises with yogic breathing. Begun 14 years ago by a physician in India, there are now Laughter Yoga clubs around the world.
The sessions Danzger attended were taught by a trained Laughter Yoga leader, although Danzger worries that the name might keep some people away. "I do not like yoga," she explains. "For me, this was totally different. I loved it."
On your own
Learning to laugh with a group is often easier, but Young contends that you can benefit from laughing by yourself for 15 minutes a day. Here's the laughter exercise she suggests:
Give 3 big, noisy sighs as you inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
Stretch gently. Bring your shoulders to your ears; then lower gently. Rotate feet and elbows; turn your head from side to side—gently.
Take a few deep abdominal breaths and release slowly.
Holding your hands under your belly, make a laughing "ho-ho-ho." Make sure the sound comes from your core (you'll feel it in your hands when you're doing it right). Repeat 3 groups of 3, several times.
Change the sound to "ha-ha-ha" and repeat as above.
Change the sound to "hee-hee-hee" and repeat as above.
Put all 3 sounds together—"ho-ho-ho, ha-ha-ha, hee-hee-hee"—and repeat for 3 rounds, continuing until you develop a rhythm.
After the final round, break into your own natural laughter. Continue for a few minutes. If it becomes difficult, stop and go back to step #3 and start the laughing cycle again.
The exercise may feel contrived at first, but your normal laugh will come, Young says. She's seen it work with the stressed-out people she teaches.
"We have gotten ourselves so overscheduled and overwhelmed that we forget to be like children. We forget to give ourselves permission to be happy, to smile," she says.
"This is one tool to put in your toolbox to make your life more rewarding and make you feel better."