Laughter—It’s the Best Medicine
Feeling agitated? Anxious? Or perhaps you’re preoccupied with some concern?
“That sounds corny,” I hear you say. “And besides, what’s going on isn’t funny.”
Never mind. Deep breath in—and begin. Ha-ha, hee-hee-hee. Just like that, loud as you can and from the belly. And as you laugh, notice how you feel. A little more relaxed and upbeat? More connected with what’s going on around you?
A growing body of research is telling us that laughter really is the best medicine. It seems the well-known saying, “He who laughs last laughs longest,” should read, “He [or she] who laughs a lot lives longest, healthiest and happiest.”
To get your guffaw going, consider what Dr. Naras Bhat, an East Bay holistic physician who teaches pre-med students at UC Berkeley and patients about the benefits of laughter, has to say on the topic of laughter. Bhat, who has run “laughter yoga” workshops with Dr. Madan Kataria, the Indian physician behind more than 6,000 laughter clubs worldwide, believes there are three common misconceptions about laughter. Rectifying them may lead to improved well-being.
Misconception No. 1: You have to be happy to laugh.
False, says Bhat. You hear a joke and think, oh, boy, that’s a lemon. Laugh anyway. Research has shown that while you don’t have to be happy to laugh, you’re happier after you laugh—and happiness equals good health.
Misconception No. 2: You need a sense of humor to laugh.
False again. “Look at a tiny baby laughing,” says Bhat. “You don’t say
they’ve got a sense of humor. They just laugh.” We often feel anger or hostility when someone hypothetically steps on our toes, says Bhat. When that happens, “I close my eyes and chuckle,” he says. The in-the-body experience of the giggle refocuses the attention and lifts the negativity. “You can look for the offbeat and learn to value silliness. Or you can just laugh and know that practice makes perfect.”
Misconception No. 3: You need a reason to laugh.
Not true either, says Bhat. “A 4-week-old baby doesn’t have a reason. Laughter is an innate impulse. We lose it in this work culture where we’re always pushing the agenda. Research has shown that while children laugh up to 400 times a day, with adults it’s less than 15 times.”
So what is “laughter yoga” anyway? Do you strike the cat pose and cackle?
Annie Goglia, a life coach and storyteller who has trained with Kataria, teaches laughter yoga on Tuesday nights in Oakland. “The meaning of the word yoga is union or unity,” she says. “Yoga, in the beginning, was about integrating body, mind and spirit. The poses came much later. We do some stretching and breathing that you could associate with yoga in that sense. But we’re more about the spirit of yoga. The exercises are about connecting with other people, with our bodies and ourselves.”
She uses storytelling and themes, which she lists in advance on meetup.com, to get her diverse group hooting, hollering and falling about in the room that’s rented biweekly at the First Congregational Church of Oakland on Harrison Street. The current economy has seen an upsurge of interest, says Arya Pathria, the Bay Area’s Dr. Laugh and the unofficial leader of the laughter yoga movement in the Bay Area. “We’re doing what we can in the community to reduce the stress that people are feeling in these uncertain times in relation to the war, joblessness and the economy.”
In fact, if we all started chortling, we’d likely put a dent in the profits of the big drug companies. “Laughter is internal jogging,” says Bhat, who has written books on reversing heart disease, cancer, stress and burnout. Besides improving our mood and countering depression, he adds, laughter can lower blood pressure, help with constipation and irritable bowel syndrome, strengthen the immune system and improve relaxation. Research has also shown that endorphins released as a result of laughter may help reduce pain from arthritis, and in some cases, women have reported fewer migraine headaches after laughter yoga sessions. Think of it as a magical internal cure-all effervescent tonic waiting for us to swig whenever we choose. For example, says Bhat, “You wreck your car. You’re unhappy. I can find a solution for you to reduce your negativity—or I can induce laughter so that you become happier whatever is happening in your life. You feel so relaxed from laughing that you’re able to make better decisions about your car on your own.”
The philosophy of “fake it until you make it” works with laughter. There’s research to show that you only need pretend to laugh or be happy for the body to produce happiness chemicals. “Our bodies don’t know the difference between thinking something and actually doing it,” says Bhat. And that’s a good thing, because being happy not only feels better; it’s also healthier than being in a funk.
In India thousands of people wake early each day and assemble in public parks to laugh out loud for 20 minutes. It started with five people back in 1995 when Dr. Madan Kataria, amazed by studies showing profound physiological and psychological benefits of laughter, began looking for a way to share them. The result is laughter yoga, which allows anyone to laugh without using jokes, humor or comedy. World Laughter Day became an annual May event in 2001 when thousands filled a public square in Copenhagen, Denmark, to laugh together. In Sweden laughter groups are common in parks. “In America, people think you’re crazy if you laugh in public,” laughs Bhat.
Want to develop a sense of humor? Follow Dr. Naras Bhat’s six-step action plan:
One Make a “joy list” of all the humorous things you’ve experienced since your childhood. Use it to “replay” the funny situations.
Two Get centered by thinking of your belly button, and from there look for fun things around you.
Three Do a morning smile drill. Practice an “ooo” (pursed lips) and “eee” (extended lips) smile in front of the mirror to prepare your smile muscles for the day.
Four Get tickled. At least once a week, ask your partner to tickle you, and you tickle your partner to perk up your humor muscles.
Five Create a meditative laughing place and visit it each day to laugh and meditate.
Six Amplify your humor response. When you feel the slightest experience of a sense of humor, add a chuckle, a belly laugh or dance.
For more on laughter yoga or to arrange a workshop, contact Arya Pathria through his Web site www.laughaway.com.
To learn more about Dr. Madan Kataria and his Laughter University, see www.laughteryoga.org.
For more on Annie Goglia’s Oakland Lifefire Laughter Club and schedule, see www.lifefire.com. (Look for the great video on her site.)
Lydia Gonzales runs regular laughter yoga classes in Alameda. Her East Bay laughter club is based in San Leandro. Contact her through her Web site, www.LaughingLydia.com.
Contact Dr. Naras Bhat through his Web site, www.concordweightclinic.com.