The hard science that backs age-defying “laughter yoga”

Ask your doctor if laughter is right for you.
Ask your doctor if laughter is right for you.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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The medicinal effects of laughter are no joke. Even forcing a chortle improves your health, which is why people in 100 countries have joined “laughter yoga” clubs, and doctors now prescribe laughter to the sick, elderly, young, and healthy for its stress-reducing effects.

Laughter yoga is a series of breathing and relaxation exercises that stimulate merriment for better health, invented in 1995 by Madan Kataria, a doctor in India. He first experimented with the therapeutic benefits of humor by accosting strangers in a park in Mumbai with jokes. The doctor then asked subjects to fake laughter, and discovered that even false laughs eventually became genuine, producing the infectious good feeling that he knew to be positive for physical and psychological health.

Since then, Kataria has developed a happy practice with an international following. Other laughter yogis have followed in his footsteps, promising a mirth that physically rejuvenates.

Clinical findings support claims that mirth, genuine or otherwise, has positive physical, physiological, and psychological effects. Laughter is associated with improved heart rate and immune system function, lowered blood pressure, reduced stress hormone production, increased salivary flow, and elevated pain tolerance. Whether or not people are really feeling gleeful, the body responds positively to the act of laughing, which can then induce actual relaxation and feeling of wellbeing.

Laughter research in the US began in earnest in 1979, after Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins published Anatomy of an Illness, an essay about how he fought the pain of a crippling disease with funny videos. Humor has since been prescribed by professionals in geriatrics, oncology, psychiatry, rehabilitation, rheumatology, general patient care and other therapeutic fields.

Laughter’s stress-reducing effects is where most benefits manifest. With time, the cumulative negative impact of everyday stresses pile up and break bodies down. The US National Institute of Mental Health says that routine stress can lead to serious problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and anxiety disorder, among others.

In Japan, healthy elderly people have shown significantly increased bone mineral density and improved moods after once-weekly therapeutic laughter exercise sessions of 30-minutes for three months. Iranian doctors who studied the effect of laughter therapy on elderly subjects have also concluded that it improved general health. And research on US cancer patients has linked induced laughter to increased Natural Killer (NK) cell activity. These cells are instrumental in fighting disease, and that same boost was seen in NK cell activity when laughter was induced in healthy patients, too.

In 2015, a Belgian nurse named Isabel Fernandez instituted a therapeutic humor practice in the cardiac and orthopedic rehabilitation departments of CHU Brugmann Hospital in Brussels. Hospital reviewers found laughter aided physical healing and general well-being, reducing stress in patients and caregivers, and her practice was quickly extended to the neurology and psychology clinics as well.

Studies show no negative side effects from amusement, but medicine is best left to professionals. So talk to your doctor about laughter and whether it’s right for you.