What’s in a laugh? Plenty! The feel good factor of humour is not ‘just a figment of the imagination’ — it goes much deeper. Humour is serious business! A basic internet search shows that it’s a science: Gelotology — the study of humour and laughter, and its psychological and physiological effects on the human body.
Research is on-going and shows that the feel good aspect is a hormonal high — actual neuro-chemical changes that help combat stress hormones and seem to be linked with the same part of the brain that produces endorphins. Hence, a sense of humour helping us deal with life’s curve balls in a much better way is not something airy fairy but a neurological fact. Better mood and emotional management results in positive emotions which have a direct physiological effect on the body. More oxygen is transported to the brain, tense muscles get relaxed, blood pressure is lowered and it’s even been known to improve cardiovascular health.
So if humour has all these benefits why don’t we focus on it more? Could it be cultural conditioning? How many of us would honestly say yes to the question, “If being publicly joyful, even silly, were beneficial for our society, would you participate?” Add to this lack of awareness about the deep, dark and gory stuff that invades our space through the media. If people could somehow see the effects of dark thoughts and what they do to their bodies in real time, they would realise that they really cannot afford the luxury of negative thinking.
R.K., a therapist, thinks there is a tendency in depressed people to be attracted to morbid things. “Besides dealing with the core issues that are affecting my clients, I do try to dig deeper and figure out what my clients are reading or watching and the kind of company they are keeping. It’s imperative to lighten up. Keeping away from depressing input in the form of people or the media and replacing it with watching some comedy shows, or reading some light humorous literature is a great way of creating positive shifts,” he says.
But what if life is tough and laughing about it is the last thing you want to do? A.L., another therapist, says “Of course the body and mind need time to heal — but taking oneself too seriously doesn’t solve anything and can actually aggravate conditions. I suggest that my clients find a joke or a humour book that really tickles their funny bone. They think they don’t really feel like it, but those who are able to do so, find that gradually their stress feelings start reducing — that’s an inbuilt thing about humour — it does make you begin to see perspective and somehow lessens the pain”.
Hence, humour can certainly heal! Interest in humour therapy seems to have originated in the 1970s when Norman Cousins became famous for sharing his experiences of overcoming a serious chronic disease by laughing at favourite comedy shows such as Candid Camera and Marx Brothers films (he stated that ten minutes of laughing gave him two hours of drug-free pain relief).
Martin Luther used it in pastoral counselling of depressed people by advising them to be with positive, uplifting people. In modern times clowns were brought into US hospitals to cheer up children — the movie Patch Adams starring Robyn Williams chronicling the real life of Patch ‘Hunter’ Adams is a must-watch in this regard.
So how can we incorporate more humour in our lives? Nargis Saleem, a therapist advises the use of humour in communication. “Saying something sensitive or tough to someone loses its harsh edge if you can manage to say it in an appropriately humorous way. (‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people’ — Victor Borge)”. Nargis also uses the NLP technique of changing your physiology to feel better about yourself.
“Let’s say you are feeling sad. Go into a room and smile broadly for a few seconds. The brain gets the signal that there is something to smile about and very soon you will begin to feel better”. This “fake-it-till-you-make-it” formula seems to be the basis of laughter yoga — a concept developed by an Indian guru and then made popular as an exercise routine developed by Indian physician Madan Kataria who wrote the book Laugh For No Reason.
Faking laughter soon makes it feel like you are really laughing as the brain cannot seem to tell the difference between fake and real laughter. Kataria started laughter clubs in 1995 beginning with five people in a park, and this has now risen to thousands of laughter clubs in many countries. A combination of diaphragmatic breathing, eye contact, childlike playfulness and laughter exercises constitute laughter yoga. A trained individual facilitates the sessions.
So, whether it is self-triggered laughter in the form of laughter yoga or reading a funny book or going to a comedy play or watching something fun on the telly — there is great value in finding something to chuckle about. “Clowning,” says Patch Adams, “is a trick to bring love close!”