Health + Wellness

The Healing Power of Laughter and Radiant Health’s Ten Commandments of Laughter

This is an excerpted piece from a feature first published in Radiant No. 09, The Psyche Issue.

Ha, ha, ha! Ho, ho, ho! Hee, hee, hee!”

We marched around the room barefoot, flapping our arms, rolling on the floor and making eye contact with our fellow participants as we echoed our instructor’s words over and over:

“Ha, ha, ha! Ho, ho, ho! Hee, hee, hee!”

Laughter yoga class.

As an overwhelmed, overworked new mom struggling with isolation and uncertainty about the medical career from which I had just resigned, I had signed up for the class out of sheer desperation to get out of the house.

“Ha, ha, ha! Ho, ho, ho! Hee, hee, hee!”

Many of us struggled to comply with the instructions, trying unsuccessfully to contain the giggles, guffaws and snorts of laughter that threatened to erupt at any second.

“Look serious as you say the words “Ha, ha, ha!” we were admonished. “Do not laugh. Maintain eye contact.”

Not a chance.

We all gave up trying not to laugh. Laughing our heads off, we held our sides, rolling on the floor, tears streaming down our faces, triggering even more laughter as we watched each other try and fail to regain our composure.

An hour later, I went home to my family elated, relaxed and confident — ready for anything.

Laughter is an interesting phenomenon that occurs in humans and other primates. It is a physiological response to an internal or external trigger such as tickling, a funny thought or a humorous event, whether situational, verbal or written. Our brain, facial muscles, vocal cords and respiratory systems conspire in a coordinated dance between the rhythmic pulsations of our diaphragms and our abdominal and respiratory rib muscles, inhaling and exhaling with a series of sounds or sighs.

Laughter is a free and natural medicine for the body, with many studies and anecdotes to back up its benefits.

Norman Cousins, a professor at the UCLA School of Medicine, researched the biochemistry of human emotions, which he believed played a critical role in human success in fighting illness. During his own debilitating illness, ankylosing spondylitis, Cousins developed a recovery program integrating high doses of vitamin C with a positive attitude of love, faith, hope, and laughter induced by funny TV shows and comic films.

In his book Anatomy of an Illness: As Perceived by the Patient, Cousins wrote “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep. When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.”

Even the Scripture has something to say about a sunny disposition: “A cheery heart is good medicine but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” And indeed, there is something to this statement.

As we laugh, our respiratory and pulse rates rise, increasing blood flow and oxygenation. This improves both our brain function and our cardiovascular function. Laughter also increases nitric oxide, which dilates our endothelial cells and blood vessels, also improving blood flow.

With heart disease now the number one killer of women, laughter can serve as a powerful agent of preventive cardiovascular medicine. In addition, laughter can have a positive effect on antibodies and boost the immune system, reducing allergic responses and potentially protecting against certain forms of cancer.

Laughter relaxes the whole body, plus it is like an internal workout, massaging your internal organs and toning your abdominal muscles. (This is not to say you should skip your planks and not go to the gym!)

Depression increases the stress hormone cortisol, lowers dopamine and serotonin, reduces focus and creates an inability to solve problems or to come up with creative solutions. Laughter, on the other hand, reduces our stress levels by lowering cortisol and epinephrine levels and causing the release of feel-good endorphins.

By increasing dopamine and serotonin levels, laughter has the ability to heighten a person’s focus, problem-solving abilities, motivation and creativity. It can also improve one’s objectivity, allowing for more emotional and mental distance from an issue for better perspective. This can help provide a sense of agency and empowerment, especially for those feeling stuck.

Laughter serves as a great coping mechanism. It can lessen distressing emotions such as sadness, fear and anger and replace them with feelings of happiness, joy, faith and even love. It allows us to show up more authentically and be more creative and better able to problem-solve. And laughter can increase resilience by instilling a positive outlook and optimism, even after failure, loss or disappointment.

Finally, laughter just feels good. And long after the laughter has stopped, the sense of well-being lingers.

 ***

“You are behind schedule. You haven’t been keeping up with the work. Are you going to be able to catch up?” The boardroom went quiet. I looked at my boss and quickly glanced around the room at my co-workers. I could feel my shame creeping in.

My inner critic was ready. “You see, now he thinks you are a loser. You are going to fit the stereotype of the lazy Black woman.”

But from doing my own personal work, I knew better, and dug deep for the courage to be honest and to positively reframe my thoughts.

I smiled sheepishly and said, “I am sorry. This summer has been insane — the kids are out of school and I am trying my best to keep up with them and the work. You know the kids — so much energy, sometimes I feel like I am chasing them all day!”

My boss, also a parent, laughed quietly to himself in recognition.

I continued, “I will be back on track as soon as school begins. I will make it up to you, I promise.”

I smiled again and maintained eye contact. My boss softened and smiled back.

“Ok. That’s fine. I understand. I just wanted to remind you how important this was.”

I sighed with relief. “Thanks so much!”

The rest of the room laughed softly and we moved on to the next item on the agenda.

Laughter is a universal language that spans cultures, languages and ages. Like its precursor, smiling, laughter is contagious and creates positive feelings. And like smiling, laughter has been shown to improve perceptions of competence, trustworthiness and morality.

Many people experience a vicious cycle in which a low mood results in isolation, which triggers more feelings of depression, which can then be perceived as an emotional drain to others and trigger even more isolation, negative feelings and sadness in the sufferer.

However, studies have shown that those who are cheerful are perceived as more attractive. Being relaxed also makes people appear more approachable, making them more likely to be surrounded by those who love and appreciate them. By making you appear more approachable, laughter can help you feel more connected and confident.

Laughter improves our relationships. Whether in loving our spouse and children, bonding with friends or coworkers, or navigating power dynamics with bosses or in-laws, laughter can be a useful ally in our quest for healthy relationships. When used mindfully, appropriately and in context, laughter can help deepen and strengthen our relationships.

By creating feelings of connection and trust and by helping to diffuse tension, laughter helps us manage delicate and serious moments. Laughter helps make a person less threatening. It breaks through emotional defenses and creates feelings of intimacy and relaxation for everyone involved. It can boost morale and well-being in personal and professional relationships alike. And because laughter is contagious, it can be easily shared, making it a powerful tool in facilitating communication, managing relationships and motivating people to take action. Because of this, laughter can be an excellent agent of transformation in organizations by improving teamwork.

So think about it — what makes you laugh? And how can you get more laughter in your life? No, I am not talking about buying a canister of laughing gas or marijuana for your fit of giggles. (Of course, no judgment here if that’s your thing, although I could think of several health reasons not to … but I digress.)

There are many things you can do to inject humor into your life. As a kid, I spent many afternoons laughing at poor Mr. Spencer in the old British sitcom Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em. I also often sneaked off to the bathroom to read the famously lewd Papa Ajasco comics and the satirical Mad Magazine, which were not age-appropriate but so hilarious.

What you choose depends on you. You can watch funny movies — whether your humor is slapstick or dry, there is a movie for you. You can watch your favorite comedians on YouTube or Netflix. Or you can read humorous books. I enjoy female comedy writers and am currently reading Mindy Kaling’s Why not me? It is a riot, as was her first book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Tina Fey’s book Bossypants is also one of my favorites.

Laughter is readily available to everyone regardless of your age, gender, culture or socioeconomic background. You can pay as much or as little as you want. Even better, you can pay nothing at all!

For starters, here is a list of some great ways to get more laughter in your life.

  1. Thou shalt laugh at yourself. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Lighten up. Be willing to laugh at yourself. Don’t complain, lament or bemoan your situation when you can laugh at it instead.
  2. Thou shalt laugh as often as you want. Bring humor into conversations and situations whether you are feeling happy, sad, angry or frustrated.
  3. Thou shalt develop your own sense of humor.  Take responsibility for getting the laughs you want: watch a comedy show, participate in fun hobbies, laughter yoga class or online videos, watch funny movies or shows, read comics and so forth. It is in your hands. Do what you must to get the laughs you need.
  4. Thou shalt study children for a playful attitude. Observe and play with children. They can play and giggle at the simplest things without effort. Pets are great sources of laughter as well.
  5. Thou shalt be mindful of context. Be discerning about where you are laughing. Context is everything; be mindful of the cultural situations in which you are planning to laugh. Uninvited laughter is not appropriate at a funeral or if someone is hurting. Don’t laugh or make jokes at someone else’s expense.
  6. Thou shalt laugh with others. Laughing with others is more powerful than laughing alone. Move toward laughter when you hear it. Smiling as you draw near prepares your brain to smile and join in the fun. Spend time with happy, playful people or those who make you feel good. Help make someone else laugh. Spread the fun!
  7. Thou shalt laugh a genuine, full-belly laugh, not a shallow laugh. Go all in! The benefits of laughter come primarily from the genuine full-belly laugh.
  8. Thou shalt practice gratitude. There is always something to be grateful for, and studies have shown that those who kept a gratitude journal are more likely to experience physical and emotional well-being, including cardiovascular health and feelings of joy and fulfillment.
  9. Thou shalt manage your stress. Smile. Exercise, eat well, pray, meditate. Take care of yourself and you will be more responsive to laughter.
  10. Thou shalt surround yourself with reminders. Keep laughter in your life by surrounding yourself with humor in the form of funny posters or comical pictures of family, pets and so forth.

***

Seven years after my first laughter yoga class, I found myself at another one. I was at the World Domination Summit, a conference for unconventional types who want to do good in the world. Wandering around a park during a break between speakers, I stumbled onto a group preparing for laughter yoga. I quickly joined in. It was incredible to see the barriers break down as the strangers connected with one another, laughing their heads off, maintaining eye contact, being silly, doing the exercises and allowing their true selves to be seen.

After the class, several of us lay down there on the grass, relaxed and still giggling. We felt so connected that we decided to have dinner together. Unsurprisingly, the conversations went deep quickly as we lingered over the meal, hesitant to say goodbye to our new friends. Laughter had brought us together and bonded us in ways we did not expect. When we finally parted ways, we promised to stay in touch. Some of us are still in touch to this day.

As I reflect on that experience, I am reminded that true connection happens when we choose vulnerability and authenticity. Laughter is one tool to facilitate this. Laughter helps us tap into our true selves, and the more we do this, the more aligned, connected and fulfilled we will be in our lives.

So what are you waiting for? Flap your arms and repeat after me: “Ha, ha, ha! Ho, ho, ho! Hee, hee, hee!” If the person next to you stares at you strangely, invite them to join you!

Download your free digital edition of Radiant at radianthealthmag.com/free

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