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Laughter for Health

Laughter therapy is gaining popularity among experts and patients

En español | The power of laughter goes beyond the pleasure and joy a spontaneous outburst provokes. Laughter changes people. Its magic heals emotional and psychological problems, eases physical ailments and pains, and helps people stay mentally sharp.

Haydée Pereira of Miami knows this from experience. She is an ardent supporter and practitioner of laughter therapy. “Every time I go to laughter therapy, I forget about my pains,” she says. “[Laughter] is a sedative for my ailing body.” At 82, she suffers from arthritis. Although no research has proven that laughter can cure diseases, physicians agree that laughing has a positive impact on the circulatory, immune and other bodily systems.

See also: They laugh and make others laugh.

Laughter also helps Pereira keep her spirits up. She often feels burdened, for example, with “many other sad things that come with age,” including her children’s and grandchildren’s problems. “But laughing during therapy,” she says, “makes me forget about everything, and I enjoy the moment.”

Laughter helps keep Pereira’s memory sharp, too. Since she began laughter therapy, she says she’s been more alert and interacts better with her friends at the senior center.

The science backs her up. Laughter, experts say, boosts mental functions, mental alertness, memory and interpersonal responsiveness. “Comedians and teachers who want to alleviate stress tell jokes,” says George Pacheco Jr., Ph.D., a communication professor at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. Making his students laugh, he says, has proven a good way to teach: “Students increase their learning through humor.”

Next: Laughter as a tool. >>

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.