Laughter as a tool
Since the 1960s, the healing powers of laughter have been explored in a branch of science called gelotology—from the Greek gelos, meaning “laughter.”
The knowledge that laughter and humor contribute greatly to good health has led to the development of techniques that use laughter as a tool for relaxation and improved health.
“Through laughter, my patients get motivated and feel more energized,” says Erika Ruiz, a certified laughter yoga teacher who specializes in working with older people in Miami. “It helps lower their blood pressure. It’s also an aerobic activity that makes them expend energy, as in exercise, and finally it helps them improve the relationships they have between each other.”
When we laugh, she explains, we generate endorphins, decreasing levels of cortisol and adrenaline — the stress hormones. Endorphins are chemicals that act on the nervous system and help reduce feelings of pain.
“They’re that pleasant sensation after having ice cream or eating chocolate,” Ruiz, 46, says. “But with laughter, they’re fat free.” And when we laugh unconditionally for at least 10 minutes, we generate enough endorphins to benefit health. The giggles and laughter can be simulated, she says: “The brain doesn’t really differentiate between fake or real, spontaneous laughter.”
So laughter therapy is gaining popularity, in workplaces, nursing homes and hospitals. Laughter therapy complements traditional cancer treatment and psychotherapy. Even nuns are getting in the act. “Everyone can laugh,” says Ruiz. And everyone can benefit.
Do try this at home
Some people, though, may find it silly to pay for laughter. Don’t want to go to a comedy club or laughter therapist? Says Ruiz: “Laughter already comes installed in your body.” We should all be laughing more in our daily lives—especially older people. Research shows that as we age, we laugh less, perhaps because we just don’t play as much.
So try your own version of laughter therapy. “Start in the morning with a light ha, ha, ha, ho, ho, and then increase in intensity,” says Ruiz. “If we want a healing laughter, we have to practice and laugh every day.” But you don’t need to force it. Surround yourself with people who make you laugh. When a child laughs, join in. Most important: Find the funny in your own life.