You've been hearing it for as long as you can remember: laughter is the best medicine. But if having a good yuk is really that effective, we wouldn't need anything else to cure of us of disease, would we? Lord knows, I'd be the healthiest person on the planet and probably live forever. Some believe chortling releases endorphins and boosts the immune system. There have also been suggestions that it lowers blood pressure, opens the diaphragm and allows more oxygen into the brain and body, and can help prevent or treat heart disease, cancer and depression.
Practitioners of laughter yoga take this idea to the extreme by forcing hilarity on themselves on a regular basis. You can watch it in action in Mira Nair's documentary The Laughing Club Of India. One thing we know for sure is that laughing is more fun than not laughing. But a word of warning: some folks have a tendency to laugh at people rather then with them. You gotta watch that.
What the experts say "Laughter has a positive effect on our body and mind, especially on our immune system. In a laughter yoga club, it's initiated as an exercise in the beginning, but when we laugh in a group it turns into genuine laughter, which is more profound than that coming out of jokes, the mental part of humour. Laughter in laughter clubs is easy to learn because it's a physical phenomenon coming from the body. It's not from the brain."
MADAN KATARIA , founder, Laughter Club International, Dr. Kataria's School of Laughter Yoga, Mumbai, India
"As a former immunologist, I don't know of any evidence that laughter boosts the immune system. It does relax the body and helps you to see things in a different light, and thus may support healing. There is evidence that stress depresses the immune system, so if laughter decreases stress it might indirectly help. It's a coping thing, not a healing thing. We work [with cancer patients] using relaxation, meditation and spiritual techniques. These help people cope and possibly live longer. Mind is vast, and laughter is one tiny facet of mind. It's relaxing, but don't think of it as all mind-body has to offer."
ALASTAIR JAMES CUNNINGHAM , retired senior scientist, Ontario Cancer Institute, Healing Journey, Toronto
"The facial feedback theory of emotions posits that actually expressing emotions is critically related to experiencing them. We don't smile because we're happy; we're happy because we smile. In studies where people held pens between their teeth, activating their smiling muscles, it made them feel better. Smiling makes people find jokes a lot funnier. That's why laughter clubs work: the activity decreases stress and negative affect, which are associated with a poor immune response. What laughter, happiness and joy are doing is decreasing the stress response."
ADAM K. ANDERSON , Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience, U of T
"To start fake laughter, just pretend to laugh for two minutes. Be sure to use your diaphragm to push the air in and out of your lungs. The idea is to move the action out of your head and throat downward so you get a good belly laugh. Often, just the sound will make you laugh harder. Fake laughter will still move oxygen into your brain, release endorphins, give your immune system a boost and brighten your mood. Another thing to do when by yourself is make funny faces in the mirror. Then there's the rowboat laugh: making arm motions as if you are rowing a boat can create a guffaw. The spider laugh comes about when you imagine a spider crawling down your back . I think even laughing at someone will result in the same benefits and immune response, but then you have to deal with all the baggage."
BETH AGNEW , certified laughter leader, Laughter Yoga Clubs International, Toronto
"The fun part of laughter as a social process is trying to challenge social hierarchies. Then there's the 'making-fun-of' laughter that's a vitriolic attack on a target. That's not healthy. The laughter clubs are doing the 'aha' laughter, not the 'hahaha!' laugh at each other. Laughter can bind people and get back to that basic human level of celebratory expression. It can lead to new ways of seeing the world and overcoming hardships. That kind of laughter provides cognitive social space, an environment where people aren't going to be judging you on some social characteristic."
WALTER PODILCHAK , lecturer, sociology department, U of T at Mississauga