Gelotology. Yes, this is the study of laughter. Research shows that laughing is more than just a person’s voice and movement, it requires the coordination of many muscles throughout the body. Even Freud mentioned laughing as a way to release excess nervous or negative energy. Now let’s take a look at breathing, it is the only function of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that is consciously regulated. These days we often hear how deep diaphragmatic breathing can really help with stress. But how? Well, it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), aka the relaxing, calming part of the nervous system opposite to the switched-on, stress responding, sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Deep breathing techniques help to relax the aroused state of a person and provide a sense of calmness; even recommendations for how to modulate breathing and influence the mind-body connection appeared centuries ago as well. Pranayama (“breath retention” in yoga) was an early belief to build a theory around controlled breathing to increase longevity.
So when looking at laughter it is seen to also engage relaxing PNS activity. Part of this is connected to the cardiac vagal tone (vagus nerve stimulation), as laughter induces diaphragmatic movements that improve this tone. Laughter also reduces levels of certain neurochemicals (yes, that includes stress hormones such as cortisol) and boosts the immune system. Even just the sound of hearing laughter has shown to improve the recovery process of the ANS after a stress-loading task, and yep, it’s all for free and has no side effects. It is often said that people who have a great level of happiness are generally healthier, both physically and psychologically. The body is made up of a multitude of factors, but what we can take from this statement is that they are most likely to laugh more, which strengthens their immune response and may reduce the likelihood of illness.
When summarising the benefits of laughter, let’s take a look at the list:
- Decrease blood pressure due to laughter inducing the release of endorphins, subsequently releasing nitric oxide that relaxes and dilates blood vessels. There is also a potential link to improving blood sugar levels.
- Reduces anxiety and negative emotions
- Improves overall optimism, self-esteem, and depression by bringing about positive coping mechanisms and increasing attention span
- Boosts your immune by increasing IgA secretion and natural killer cells (immune cells)
- Improves sleep and prevents insomnia
- Improves respiratory rate and oxygen intake, increasing energy
- Reduces stress hormones and pain, even increasing pain threshold (a whole post needs to be done on the effects of stress hormone effects) as endogenous opioids are released when we laugh. Opioids bind to receptors and naturally produce properties similar to morphine or when we do exercise.
- Burns calories. Studies have shown that 20 seconds of a good, hard belly laugh is worth three minutes on the rowing machine.
Want some fun laughter exercises to get you going? Try these.
- Hearty laughter: Laughter by raising both the arms in the sky with the head tilted a little backwards.
- Gradient laughter: Start by smiling and then slowly begin to laugh with a gentle chuckle. Increase the intensity of the laugh until you’ve achieved a hearty laugh. Then gradually bring the laugh down to a smile again.
- Greeting laughter (Group activity): Joining both the hands and shaking hands with at least four or five people in the group.
- Appreciation laughter: Join your pointing finger with the thumb to make a small circle while making gestures as if you are appreciating yourself and the people around you and laughing simultaneously.
- Milk shake laughter: Hold and mix two imaginary glasses of milk or coffee and pour the milk from one glass into the other by chanting “Aeee….,” and then pour it back into the first glass by chanting “Aeee…” Then, everyone laughs while making a gesture as if they are drinking milk.
- Lion laughter: Thrust out the tongue, widen the eyes, and stretch the hands out like claws while laughing.
- Humming laughter: Laugh with the mouth closed and hum like a bee.
All of these laughter methods are great, however research shows that a good old belly laugh where your head is tilted back for more than 3 seconds and the actual “ha-ha-ha” sound stimulates the vagus nerve, will modulate leukocyte cytokine production and improve immune function for three days, and a full 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter offers an analgesic effect.
Positive mood is closely tied to spontaneous laughter, and it is thought to have independent cognitive and beneficial psychological effects of its own. So let’s be grateful for laughter when it appears and seek it out daily to improve your health and happiness.