Laughter Therapy: What is it and how is it beneficial?
Laughther is a characteristic of a positive emotion. We tend to think that someone who is laughing is because he/she is happy or just heard a joke. However, what if laughter can also be a way of coping with sadness, managing stress, and other negative feelings? What if laughter can be used therapeutically to help you express yourself? Find out more about Laughter Therapy below.
What is Laughter Therapy?
Pretty self-explanatory, laughter therapy is the treatment of anxiety, depression, and other saddened mental states through means of laughter. It improves one’s overall well-being by relieving the pains and stressors of one’s life.
Why is laughter therapy beneficial?
There are many benefits to laughter therapy, and subsequently, laughing. First off, blood flow is increased by approximately 50% which is why you see some people turning red from laughing so hard.
In addition to increasing blood flow, it normalizes blood pressure. Our heart rate and pressure significantly increase when one laughs, then proceeds to significantly decrease to below average after the laugh. This is due to the cardiovascular system, which is, in essence, dilating during this process.
Laughter also combats diseases. It boosts the production of gamma interferon, T cells and B cells, blood platelets in general, which are antibodies made to fight diseases, including cancer. The increased production of these cells also helps to boost the immune system. The mechanism happening when one laughs prevents immune system shut down from occurring. Laughing makes the flight or fight response non-present, which in turn switches off various stress hormones.
Another benefit to our blood is that when we laugh, it becomes highly oxygenated. We are essentially gasping for air, which is why you might have a silent laugh or know someone who does. Due to these gasps, we are lending a good amount of oxygen into our blood, and the production of salivary hemoglobin is also increased, fighting also against respiratory disease.
Essentially, when we laugh, the body releases a ton of neurotransmitters and chemicals that stimulate our brain and immune systems. The sympathetic nervous system, too, is deadened, meaning we actually do get healthier. Natural endorphins are released, automatically relieving pain; beta-endorphins are a particular hormone involved in reducing pain levels, says psychologist Dr. Annette Goodheart.
Furthermore, laughing doesn’t just relieve pain; it also enables us to withstand a more pain. This was shown in UCLA’s Medical Center study of 2001. Two groups of children were told to submerge their hand in a bucket of ice water for as long as they could. One group was instructed to watch funny videos while the other group did not. The group who watched the videos was able to keep their hands in the water for 40% longer.
Dr. Goodheart’s philosophy on laughter is as stated:
“I operate on the assumption that certain laughter rebalances the body chemicals produced by fear. A different kind of laugh will rebalance the internal chemistry of anger.”
She believes different laughs can fight different mental states. However, it is also true that smiling (and subsequently laughing) boosts immune function no matter its realness or fakeness.
Strack, Martin, and Stepper proved this in their famous Facial Feedback Hypothesis of 1988. When participants were put in a room and instructed to hold a pen between their teeth without having their lips touch, to mimic the pose of a smile, participants were then happier. The study and smile-like configuration affected their memory and mood-congruent processing.
University of California San Francisco Scientific America suggests that even a fake smile has the power to elicit an electrical impulse to the brain that is then translated into a feeling of joy. Laughter takes this to an even higher level.
Fake laughter is just as effective as real laughter. The body cannot discern between the two. The neurotransmitters still send the same signals, the same hormones are still activated, and the same processes are still at work. However, almost always, fake laughter will turn into real laughter, which does really benefit us, affecting the emotions we hold deep. Within 45-90 seconds of laughing (fake or not), the body releases that flood of neurotransmitters and hormones. And after two minutes, fake laughter becomes real. Whether this is due to the silliness of forcing oneself to laugh for no reason or some other phenomenon, it is a respected claim.
Real laughter has the power to change depressive behaviors into positive ones — which then lead to an increased hopefulness, say researchers at Texas A&M University. It combats those negative thoughts and thus searches for happier alternatives.
There is no stark line dividing emotional and physical pain and laughter’s treatment for them; instead, it treats both. Norman Cousins laughter healed his physical pains. Cousins is famously known for having extremely painful spine arthritis, or what is called ankylosing spondylitis. Every night before bed, Cousins would watch the Marx Brothers for 10 minutes and would be ‘belly laughing’ because of it. He discovered that in doing so, he was able to sleep for two hours, completely pain-free. When the pain would start to come back, he’d repeat the process.
Additionally, laughing is quite the exercise. You know that feeling when you’re laughing so hard, your stomach starts to hurt? Well, that’s actually your diaphragm, and it’s because you are giving it a crazy exercise. Laughing 100 times a day is the same as doing 15 minutes on a stationary bike. If you laughed for 15 minutes a day for 5 years, you could possibly lose up to 5 pounds.
So what exactly is laughter therapy about?
Is it just laughing? Well, it can be. Laughter is not solely achieved by watching funny clips or TV shows. Instead, clowns are put to work, scenes are acted out, and punchlines are told. These gimmicks, laughter yoga, and even creating a safe space for laughing, are all different types of ways laughter therapy can be executed.
Moreover, it can take place in ‘humor rooms’ in hospitals, group therapy or one on one sessions with psychologists, yoga classes, or any place where you can simply read a book, watch a show, or play with toys.
Laughter is also viewed as a source of social bonding. One must be at ease in order to laugh. People generally do not laugh with people they are not comfortable around. With genuine laughter occurring, a necessary trust must also exist. Laughter is people connecting; it is a form of agreement and understanding. We also have a unique ability to pick up on other people’s laughter and find someone else’s laughter comical, like the butterfly effect. Thus, we are sharing in each other’s joy.It is also a natural way to cope with negative mental states and raw emotion.
Laughter Therapy Concerns
However, there are some concerns associated with laughter therapy. Being that is can be a coping mechanism, it is important to be aware of people’s sensitivity. For instance, someone may not be ready to laugh their way out of a traumatizing incident and may need some getting used to before opening up to the idea of letting go. Additionally, implementing laughing as a coping mechanism can cause issues. Laughter is looked down upon in some social situations. For example, laughing while in a fight with your significant other, at a funeral, or at the death of any person or animal. These are all instances in which there must be sensitivity towards the feelings of others.
Trying to employ laughter through sarcasm is another route that should be avoided. People going through laughter therapy are most likely going to be quite sensitive. They need comforting and supportive people to create a non-threatening space for them. Sarcasm can be wrongly interpreted and misunderstood. The very nature of sarcasm can be offensive; it is often used as a mockery. So, like every therapeutic means, it is always important to know your audience and sympathize with them.
Laughter Therapy: What about crying?
Interestingly, laughter and crying are not complete opposites, as one might assume. Rather, they are at different ends of a continuum. So, like previously mentioned, someone who laughs at the death of a person does not actually find the circumstance comical; instead, it is their way of experiencing a sort of catharsis; it is their way of coping.
The same way a person cries when at a funeral, another person will laugh, both allowing himself or herself to feel a cathartic release. Moreover, people cry when they are happy, for example, a bride who is walking down the aisle to meet her groom. So, although laughter and crying are not all that different, it is important to stay mindful of the sensitivities of the situation and the people involved in them.
Who shouldn’t do laughter therapy?
Because laughter can cause some physical strain, it may not be recommended for pregnant women, patients who just underwent surgery, or people with hernias. If you are trying group therapy or laughter yoga, you may also want to stay mindful towards your group. Anyone who appears sick, with a cold of some sort or another, may spread their germs through their laughing.
Laughter brings us together as people and has so many benefits, we leave this video for you and challenge you not to laugh at these contagious laughters. Feel free to “laugh” or comment below. 🙂
May, Antoinette, and Annette Goodheart. “Laughter Therapy: How Annette Goodheart Did It.” Laughter Online University, 3 Feb. 2016
Mischel, Walter, et al. Introduction to personality: toward an integrative science of the person. Hoboken, NJ, John Wiley & Sons, 2008
PRESS, LINDSEY TANNER | ASSOCIATED. “Funny Bone’s Therapeutic Value Is a Bone of Contention.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 30 Sept. 2001,
Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(5), 768-777.
Stuff You Should Know: “Laughter: What’s so funny about that?” 15 June 2009.