The health benefits of voluntary laughter

by Nicky Pellegrino / 11 September, 2017
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Practising prolonged voluntary laughter leads to better mental and physical well-being.

We’ve all heard the line that laughter is the best medicine. Ros Ben-Moshe, a public health lecturer at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, decided to help prove it.

For the past 10 years, she has been running laughing yoga sessions, teaching everyone from children to employees of big companies her blend of laughter, breathing and clapping.

Now Ben-Moshe, through a study involving rest-home residents, has contributed to the science already backing the therapeutic potential of laughing yoga. She held weekly half-hour sessions with 28 elderly people and measured how these affected their mood, blood pressure and pulse.

Conducting studies in aged care is challenging, since participants can get sick or die. Also, 15 of the residents in Ben-Moshe’s programme had dementia. “We didn’t know what we’d be getting on the day in terms of mood and ability,” she says.

However, the results were encouraging. The sessions gave participants a mood lift, but they also lowered their blood pressure significantly and their heart rates. “In everything we measured there was an improvement,” says Ben-Moshe. “We could see for ourselves how powerful it was.”

Whereas other activities may become too difficult in old age, laughing yoga remains doable for most.

“And the wonderful thing about laughter exercises is they’re very active rather than being a passive activity such as sitting people down to watch television,” says Ben-Moshe. “Those with dementia can still laugh and smile, and we found that after a session, there was a lot of interaction and engagement between them. People who’ve had strokes can get some movement back in their faces, it can help with motor skills and it’s a gentle aerobic exercise. Regular laughter sessions release endorphins and oxygenate the blood.”

Ros Ben-Moshe.

Laughing yoga was developed in the 1990s by Indian doctor Madan Kataria, and since then clinical findings have supported claims it lowers stress hormone production, elevates pain tolerance and boosts immune function.

A US study involving cancer patients linked it to increased activity of disease-fighting natural-killer cells. Research in Iran with nursing students showed it improved sleep disorders and lowered anxiety and depression. And US doctor Patch Adams integrated medicine with humour and play.

A typical laughing yoga session begins with stretching, chanting and clapping. Participants then move through a series of different laughs and finish with a smiling mindfulness practice.

“Initially there can be resistance and people feel silly,” says Ben-Moshe. “But the mind can’t differentiate between real and fake laughter. And because it’s so contagious, it becomes real in no time.”

Laughter has benefited Ben-Moshe’s own life – although when she was diagnosed with bowel cancer at the age of 42, it was the last thing she felt like doing.

“I had been booked to do a laughter session at a ladies’ lingerie party,” she recalls. “It was a few days before my surgery and I wanted to back out, but it seemed too late. So I went along and noticed the lead weight that had descended upon diagnosis began to lift to some extent. A hell of a lot of stress and anxiety was laughed away.”

Frustration, fear and anxiety around test results were all eased the same way. “At times, I’d just take 60 seconds to laugh in my car and it really shifted stuff. It made all the difference in the world.”

In an as-yet-unpublished second part of the study, staff in 30 rest homes in Victoria were trained to run sessions and some of these are continuing. Ben-Moshe sees regular laughter as an alternative to medication for a community that is at elevated risk of depression.

But she recommends that all of us seek regular opportunities for laughter, whether that means watching stand-up comedy or a light-hearted film or going to a laughter club (find one at laughteryoga.org.nz).

“People can become so buried in stress and adversity that laughter doesn’t seem to have a place in life like it does in childhood,” she says. “What I’ve found is that the more you bring a conscious level of awareness to laughter and the more you find a reason to smile, it rewires your brain. So I’ll start the day with a smile on my face.”

This article was first published in the August 12, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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