Take a long, deep breath in. As you exhale say “Ha, ha, ha” for as long as you can. While you’re doing that shake your shoulders. Try it. Really. You have now experienced simulated laughter, the basis of the rapidly growing world-wide movement of Laughter Clubs and Laughter Workshops.
The first Laughter Workshop I attended was in a park. It was facilitated by Dr Madan Kataria, founder of the Laughter Clubs of India. There were about 100 people moving around, laughing,and doing odd movements suggested by Dr Kataria to encourage laughter. I spent the first half of that workshop hiding behind a tree. Occasionally someone would look behind the tree and laugh at me.
By the end of the session I had overcome my inhibitions and was laughing with the crowd and at myself.
After a period of time and further training with Dr Kataria I started a weekly Laughter Club at the church where I was the minister. It was the happiest and most delightful program in the church, attracting many people from the local community.
At that stage I had been doing stand up comedy for a few years and, in an attempt to take comedy seriously, had begun to read theories about why people laugh and what effect laughter has on the human body and mind. As a Christian, my question was also, “Why has God given us laughter?” or, reflecting the belief of the Puritans, “Is laughter actually from the devil?” A more personal nagging question was, “When I stand up in a pub and make a room full of drunk people laugh, is God also laughing or is he rolling his eyes at me?”
In pursuit of the seriousness behind laughter I joined the International Society of Humour Studies and attended one of their conferences in Denmark. It was a mostly humourless event with academic papers presented, many with the introduction, “I’m not a humour practitioner but …” The study of laughter, smiling and mirth (defined, by those who seem to experience it rarely, as the feeling that erupts in laughter) took off in the US in the 1970’s. America was the first place that paid people to place electrodes on eager volunteers and study what happened in a human body when it laughed.
The results of these early studies were surprising and over the years have been replicated in various countries. Please excuse my failure to cite the authors of these academic studies. My interest has focused on laughing and encouraging others to laugh.
In layman’s terms (and I’m painfully conscious that I’m writing for medical professionals) there are four main physiological changes in the body when we laugh. All of them promote good health.
Laughter relieves stress. When we laugh our body shakes. It shakes sufficiently that there is a measurable decrease in muscle tension. Most people know intuitively that laughter relieves stress. I have consciously used this when a group of people (I won’t name it as the Parish Council) have reached a tense point in a discussion. A light or humorous comment creates laughter which releases tension. The body language of the group visibly relaxes. Many people who attend Laughter Clubs claim the main benefit they gain from the sessions is the release of physical and emotional stress.
Secondly, laughter is good aerobic exercise. A lot of deep breathing happens when a body laughs. Now would be a good time to repeat the simulated laughter exercise in the first paragraph of this article. Okay, you don’t have to. As with all forms of aerobic exercise, laughter is good for the strengthening the heart and lungs. A study at Edinburgh University came to the conclusion that one minute of hearty laughing is the same aerobic exercise as ten minutes on a rowing machine. I came to the conclusion that one minute of hearty laughing is a lot more enjoyable than ten minutes on a rowing machine.
Some Japanese researchers (for our third health benefit of laughter) found that after a session of laughter there is more immunoglobulin A in the blood. This, they tell me (and you will know whether it is true or not) is an indication of a strengthened immune system. The study was done by showing a group of people an 80 minute comedy movie while a control group watched 80 minutes of Japanese weather reports. The latter apparently has no positive effect on the body.
The fourth healthy contribution of laughter is that, in response to laughter, the body produces endorphins which contributes to a sense of well-being and mild euphoria. The same effect can also be achieved in various other ways including singing in a choir, eating dark chocolate or chillies, crying and having sex. Not necessarily all at the same time. I’ll keep my focus on laughter.
The physiological benefits of laughter have been found to be the same for both spontaneous laughter and “simulated laughter”. This is the basis of the various and odd simulated laughter activities of Laughter Clubs. Now may be another good time to repeat the simulated laughter exercise in the first paragraph.
Laughter also has social benefits.
Laughter facilitates positive interactions between people which is essential for good health. It has been estimated that 80% of laughter doesn’t follow a punch line but is “social laughter”, that is, an expression of playfulness or joy between people. This sort of laughter is communal, infectious and very affirming. Laughter from playfulness is what happens at Laughter Clubs.
With or without the academic study of laughter people have always known intuitively that laughter contributes to good health. In the wisdom literature of the Old Testament we read, in Proverbs 17:22, “A cheerful heart is like a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones”. Laughter is the best medicine, and God said it first.
Laughter as an expression of joy is delightfully described in the bible in Psalm 126.
1 When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
2 Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
3 The LORD has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.
This Psalm portion is best understood when read with a broad smile and the occasional insertion of a chuckle. The psalmist sees laughter as a response to the redemptive action of the Lord. The laughter and joyful songs of God’s people convinced the surrounding nations that the Lord had done great things for them. It would be exciting and challenging to measure the effectiveness of Christian outreach by the amount of laughter and joy seen by those outside the church.
The answer to my question “Does God laugh?” is found in Psalm 2:4, “The One enthroned in heaven laughs”.
The problem with this very positive sounding quote is that in its context the Lord is scoffing and laughing in scorn at the kings of the nations, who think they can conspire and plot against the Lord’s anointed. Generally, laughing in scorn and derision is not seen as positive laughter. However, in Psalm 2 the Lord’s laughter is the laughter of confidence. We can share in this laughter because of the assurance that the Lord is sovereign and all will be well. The best translation I can put on this is that when we trust in God, we’re laughing.
An old creed says that the chief aim of mankind is to know God and enjoy him forever. I believe that enjoying God now and through eternity will involve a lot of laughter. Let’s start practising in church.
BIO: Howard is an Anglican priest and is currently the vicar of St. Paul’s Caulfield North and Archdeacon of Stonnington in the Diocese of Melbourne. His mission is to make God and people laugh.
For ten years Howard performed stand-up comedy in pubs, clubs and churches and has had seven shows in the Melbourne Comedy Festival.
He facilitates Laughter Workshops for corporate and community groups. He has been a regular commentator on ABC and commercial radio and does occasional spots on TV.
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