Photo by Veronique Durruty/Gamma-Rapho/Getty
You don’t have to wait to be amused, there are ways to train yourself to enjoy the ‘cheap medicine’ of laughter every day
by Freda Gonot-Schoupinsky + BIO
Photo by Veronique Durruty/Gamma-Rapho/Getty
In the film Mary Poppins (1964), Uncle Albert extols the benefits of laughter in his song ‘I Love to Laugh’: ‘The more I laugh/the more I fill with glee/And the more the glee/The more I’m a merrier me!’ As a gelotologist – someone who studies laughter (not ice cream!) – I know he was on to something. Laughing is one of the best things you can do to cheer yourself up. So much so that I actively make a habit to laugh regularly – and I think you should, too.
For starters, laughter can benefit your physical wellbeing. The American psychologist William Fry, the father of gelotology, referred to laughter as ‘internal jogging’ for good reason: a recent study found that it had a similar effect as exercise on heart rate and heart-rate variability. Other physiological benefits of laughter include an enhanced immune system, muscle relaxation, and reduced blood pressure. One study of nearly 21,000 older adults found that those who laughed every day were less likely to have heart disease, compared with those who never or almost never laughed (although this study was cross-sectional, so it might be that healthier people are more likely to laugh regularly in the first place). In a study of individuals with Type 2 diabetes, those who watched a comedy film (rather than a boring lecture) showed decreased levels of prorenin in their blood, a protein involved in the onset of diabetic complications. And if you’re ever in physical pain, laughing might help: watching funny videos can increase your pain tolerance.
There are also benefits for psychological health and personal development. When you laugh, your brain releases mood-boosting chemicals, including endorphins, and fewer stress hormones – so laughing can reduce feelings of stress and symptoms of depression, and help you cope in challenging environments. Laughter can also improve sleep quality, increase self-esteem and creative thinking, and provide an environment that enhances learning. All that considered, we’d be wise to follow the words of the poet Lord Byron: ‘Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.’
You might be thinking that all this sounds promising, but you just don’t have much opportunity to laugh in your own life. You’re not alone: one study of adults in the United States found that, on average, people laughed about 18 times a day, but that number varied between 0 and 89. Another study, of adults aged 65 and older in Japan, found that most laughed several times a week or every day – but 18.8 per cent reported laughing fewer than four times a month. If that sounds like you, don’t worry. The good news is that you don’t have to wait for laughter to appear in your life.
Most of us think of laughter as a spontaneous reaction to something funny, but that’s not always the case. Just think about babies – they don’t need jokes to laugh, and neither do we. Humour can certainly make us laugh, and laughing can make things humorous. But based on my own research and others’, it’s clear that they can occur separately too – and laughter without humour can still make you feel happy. The upshot is that we don’t need to wait for something funny to happen before we can experience the benefits of laughter.
There’s also a misconception that you need to be around other people to have a giggle. Laughter often is a social behaviour – we are 30 times more likely to laugh with someone else than when we’re alone. The British cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott describes it as a ‘social emotion’, and it often acts as a social lubricant, increasing bonding and feelings of intimacy. But you don’t actually need the other people – it’s perfectly possible to laugh when you’re alone, and still experience laughter’s benefits.
If you want a quick way to cheer yourself up, laughter is the ideal medicine. It’s healthy, free, quick and easy. You don’t need to buy any equipment or join any clubs, and you can do it almost anywhere (although funerals are not recommended – unless you’re watching Mr Bean’s ‘Funeral’ episode). And unlike other vices we might reach for in times of stress, there are no calories (in fact, laughter burns them), it’s low risk, and it’s legal. Sounds like an easy choice, right? Here are a few tips to get you started.
Enjoy laughing at humour alone
It can take a bit of practice to get used to the idea of laughing alone. One easy way to get started is to think about how you might include more humour in your life (as I’ve said, you can certainly have laughter without humour, but this is a good place to get started). To do this, you might want to try out some of the seven ‘humour habits’ devised by the American psychologist Paul McGhee, one of the pioneers of humour research, in his book Humor as Survival Training for a Stressed-Out World (2010).
First, he suggests surrounding yourself with humour. This involves figuring out exactly what your sense of humour is, and thinking about how you might include more of it in your life. For example, I recommend watching funny films and listening to comedians. Download films that make you really laugh and re-watch them: the good ones will make you laugh again and again. You can watch YouTube clips that give a quick giggle: two of my personal favourites are Monty Python’s ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ (1970) sketch and Paddington Bear flooding the bathroom in the 2014 film – but there are thousands of others. The Three Stooges’ pie-throwing sketch (1930) always cracks me up; just find what works for you. You can also read up on funny jokes – there are lots of family-friendly ones available online. Here’s one of my favourites: ‘As a scarecrow, people say I’m outstanding in my field. But hay, it’s in my jeans.’ The more you invite humour into your life, the more likely you are to laugh.
McGhee’s second suggestion is to try to cultivate a playful attitude at work and at home. Try to find the fun in things, and to get more enjoyment from what you’re doing in the moment. I find this helps move me into a favourable frame of mind. Think of this like warming up before any physical exercise – here, you’re getting your body and your emotions ready to laugh.
The third habit is to intentionally try to laugh more often and more heartily. It can be challenging to laugh out loud when you’re alone, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. Aim for laughter that feels and sounds playful, joyful and natural, and try different styles – there isn’t only one way to do it right. For instance, belly laughs are great, but other types of laughter can be beneficial too. And remember, it doesn’t matter if it’s a little forced at first (I don’t use the word ‘fake’ – all laughs are real, just produced by different vocal systems). Self-induced laughter can get a bad rap, but research indicates that it can be even more effective for health and wellbeing than the spontaneous kind.
McGhee also recommends looking for humour in everyday life – for example, by putting up ‘What’s funny about this?’ reminders around the house, or by asking friends what they find funny. You can have a laugh at silly typos, or at the shape of a vegetable in your garden or fridge, or at the antics of your pet – whatever works. You just need to be open to seeing the humour in the everyday things around you. This also applies to situations that might be embarrassing or stressful: McGhee also recommends taking yourself lightly, laughing at yourself when you can, and trying to find humour in the midst of stress.
Once you’ve tried out some of these steps, you might want to try reading some jokes – for example, look up the Dad Jokes Twitter feed. Here’s another one I like: ‘I wondered why the Frisbee was getting bigger, and then it hit me.’ If you’re already laughing at that and you’re alone, then well done, you’ve scored 100 per cent! If you’re not quite there yet, you might want to try another of McGhee’s seven habits, one I missed in the list above: creating your own verbal humour.
Train your own comedy skills
Creating your own jokes can be a fun way to have a good laugh. McGhee has a lot of suggestions. One is creating ‘daffynitions’, a pun involving the reinterpretation of existing words. For example, you can spot humour in language ambiguity – eg, ‘aperitif’ for a set of dentures, or ‘funghi’ for a guy who knows how to have a good time. Another idea is to try building jokes using exaggeration, for example: ‘I had a cavity so deep that my dentist sent me to see a podiatrist.’
If you’re keen to hone your skills further, you could explore humour in more depth. For example, in his book The Art of Comedy Writing (2011), the American communications scholar Arthur Asa Berger describes 45 different humour techniques. They fall under four categories: language (eg, exaggerations, misunderstanding, satire); logic (eg, coincidence, disappointment, ignorance), identity (eg, exposure, mimicry, caricature); and action (eg, chase, slapstick, speed). These ideas can help you understand your own sense of humour, as well as give you some prompts for writing original jokes.
If you do have a go at creating your own comedy, you can laugh either at the brilliance or the sheer cringiness of your humour. Then share it with others for more laughs. We all have jokes in us, however silly they might seem; if they get you laughing, that’s enough. And it’s worth persevering: the psychologist Willibald Ruch and colleagues at the University of Zurich trained a group of adults in McGhee’s seven humour habits programme, and found that humour can indeed be trained. Compared with a control group, participants who completed the eight-week training programme reported that their mood improved and they took themselves less seriously – and, importantly, close friends rated that their sense of humour had improved too.
Laugh with others using humour
You can try a lot of the above ideas with others, and it will likely be easier that way, since laughter is contagious and a natural social activity. For example, you could try creating jokes with friends and family. Everyone should have the chance to have a go, and you can then share the results with each other. When you listen to other people’s ideas, try to appreciate their value. It’s easy to criticise the efforts of others, but humour isn’t easy to get right, so do encourage them. It’s more fun if you end up laughing together than telling them that their joke isn’t funny. (This reminds me of a joke about PMS, but that’s not funny. Period.)
You can also share humour with friends virtually – you don’t need to be with others physically to laugh with them. You can laugh when you send them jokes and funny videos – and, if you’re lucky, you might get some back (do laugh out loud if you can). Whatever you share, bear in mind humour etiquette: before sharing your side-splitting joke, ask yourself if it will make people feel good or might cause problems. A little sarcasm or biting wit can be funny but, if in doubt, enjoy it alone. Aim for ha-ha, not nah-nah!
Laugh with others without humour
If you don’t want to rely on corny jokes, or if you worry whether others will get the punchline, then remember: you don’t actually need a funny stimulus to laugh with your friends. In fact, social laughter is often less about humour and more about bonding. In one study, the American psychologist Robert Provine observed 1,200 examples of spontaneous laughter in natural conversations, and noted what the speaker had said immediately before the listener laughed. He found that only 10 to 15 per cent of prelaugh comments could be described as ‘remotely humorous’. Much more often, people laughed in response to banal comments such as ‘It was nice meeting you, too,’ or ‘Where have you been?’ Not exactly side-splitting… In Provine’s words, most prelaugh dialogue ‘is like that of an interminable television situation comedy scripted by an extremely ungifted writer’.
The funny thing – excuse the pun – is that this sort of laughter can be enjoyable. And it’s an important finding because it shows us that it doesn’t really matter what we laugh about – what matters is that we’re laughing. What’s also surprising is that Provine found that speakers laugh more than listeners do. So add in a little laugh when you talk, and make an effort to laugh back when you hear someone laughing. But make sure it feels appropriate, as laughing out loud when you, say, first meet someone might alarm them.
There are also a number of more formal practices where you can laugh with others without humour. The first of these is laughter yoga, which can reduce symptoms of depression and feelings of loneliness. Laughter yoga was invented by the medical doctor Madan Kataria in India in 1995. Initially, people laughed by telling jokes, but the jokes got old quickly and it seemed that some were inappropriate. But then Kataria saw that jokes weren’t needed, because once one person had laughed, others started laughing too. Today, laughter yoga integrates a range of playful movements and exercises (no hard yoga poses) – for example, participants are encouraged to speak ‘gibberish’ (nonsense talk) to get the laughter flowing. You can even get started at home by trying some online videos – one study found that seven days of home practice improved participants’ mood. Less well-known is laughing qigong, in which a series of breathing and body movements are paired with simulated laughter – here’s a demonstration by the Taoist master Mantak Chia. One study found that mood and humour levels improved in a group of adolescents who took an eight-week course, compared with a control group who read or did their homework.
When I was researching laughter and humour, I noticed that there wasn’t a short prescription for laughter that could be offered to people in need. Telling people to watch 20 or 30 minutes of comedy films a day sounds like a good idea, but it might not always be feasible or result in laughter. As just one minute of laughter can boost mood, I had the idea for the ‘Laughie’, a quick and easy way for the medical community to prescribe laughter. It’s like a selfie, except instead of taking a photo of yourself, you use your smartphone to record yourself laughing and then keep that to laugh with whenever you want.
If you have respiratory or any health concerns contra-indicating physical exercise, consult with your doctor first. But if you’re in good health, you can give it a try. It’s really simple: just record yourself laughing for one minute. You can then listen to your Laughie and laugh along with it – it becomes contagious, and it acts as a guide and timer. Listen alone or with others, and do it whenever you want. Try using it up to three times a day for one or two weeks to boost your mood. Thereafter, once a day is good, or less if you are laughing a lot in other ways. For variety, or if you don’t like your recorded voice, you can always use other people’s Laughies.
In one study, we found that laughing with a Laughie three times a day for seven days increased wellbeing by 16 per cent in healthy adults. Participants also reported other benefits including being more open to laughing with other people, sleeping better, and feeling more relaxed. One said: ‘You laugh at life, you laugh at your problems, so it’s gym for the soul.’ Another said: ‘It really helped me gain energy and mostly relieve stress.’ During the COVID-19 lockdown in India in 2020, the management professor Ekta Sharma at Ahmedabad University conducted research using the Laughie; she is now supervising the development of a Laughie app. The health psychologist Gulcan Garip at the University of Derby in the UK is planning a database of Laughies for people to use, called a ‘Laughing Stock’.
For some inspiration, take a look at my friends Belinda and her daughter Cassandra listening to Belinda’s Laughie – and laughing along, of course! I was pleased to learn that, after taking part in my study, they became Laughie enthusiasts. And here’s a video of the happiness coach Genny Jones using her Laughie, showing how contagious it can be to laugh alone, and another of me explaining how to record your own Laughie.
Thank you for taking this laughter voyage with me. We have covered a lot of ground, yet this is only an introduction, and there’s still much to be researched, and more evidence to be gathered. The examples given are suggestions to add more laughter to your life. You can be adventurous and try out new ways of laughing, or stick to those you already enjoy and just increase the frequency. The most important thing is that you have a laugh.
There are lots of videos worth watching to better understand why we laugh and how it benefits us. My favourites include ‘Why We Laugh’ (2015) by the cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott; ‘Why Babies Laugh’ (2017) by the psychologist Casper Addyman; ‘Choose to Laugh – It’s Good for You’ (2017) by the laughter champion Sebastian Gentry; and ‘Belly Laugh Benefits’ (2016) by the cardiologist Michael Miller on getting in one good belly laugh a day, with tears of joy if possible!
If you’re looking for a laugh to set you off, check out this video with the American laughter coach Dave Berman and Doug Collins from Mississippi, the man with the ‘most contagious laugh in the world’, according to the Comedy Barn TV show.
Laughology (2009) by the filmmaker Albert Nerenberg is the first documentary about the contagiousness of laughter.
For those interested in laughter yoga, check out Madan Kataria’s latest book, Laughter Yoga: Daily Practices for Health and Happiness (2020), his TEDMED talk (2013), and his interview with Berman, the laughter coach. You can also try online lessons with Joe Hoare, a certified laughter yoga teacher in Bristol, who also works with the Laughie, or book a ‘happiness session’ with Genny Jones, a confidence and laughter coach, also in the UK, who’s had great results teaching the Laughie to children.
‘Harnessing the Power of Humor: The Science and Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter’ (2020) is a free resource from the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor in Illinois, with articles on the benefits of laughter, and how to do more of it, by various experts.
Two of my favourite books on the subject are Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (2020) by Robert Provine, which gives a broad overview of the field, and Taking Laughter Seriously (1983) by John Morreall, which gives a more philosophic overview. A new book I’m looking forward to is Humor, Seriously (2021) by the social psychologist Jennifer Aaker and the marketing lecturer Naomi Bagdonas, which has the encouraging subtitle ‘Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life: And How Anyone Can Harness It. Even You’.