What is laughter therapy?

By: Molly Edmonds  | 
Paging Dr. Clown!
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Key Takeaways

  • Laughter therapy involves using humor to improve health and relieve stress, with benefits including pain relief and enhanced mood.
  • Studies have shown that laughter can increase pain tolerance, improve blood flow and release endorphins, acting as an "internal jogging" that offers psychological and physiological benefits.
  • By stimulating the release of endorphins, laughter therapy helps reduce stress, anxiety and increases personal energy.

If you've read Stephen King's "It," then you might suffer from coulrophobia, the fear of clowns. These circus mainstays seem to have more foes than friends, particularly when you scan the numerous horror films that feature these sadistic entertainers. In a study conducted by the University of Sheffield, children reported that they would find a hospital decorated with clowns "frightening and unknowable" [source: Rohrer].

Those kids better buck up, because clowns in hospitals aren't going away anytime soon. Clowns can be a key part of laughter therapy, which relies on various techniques designed to produce laughter. Laughter is believed to be beneficial to patients because it reduces anxiety and stress, renders pain manageable and bolsters the immune system.


Horror writer Ramsey Campbell spoke to the BBC in 2008 about people's fear of clowns, which he believes is due to a clown's unchanging mask of forced comicality [source: Rohrer]. Yet advocates of laughter therapy believe that laughing is what helps us rid ourselves of our own masks of fear and pain. From workplaces to therapists' offices to hospitals, laughter coaches aim to get people laughing in an effort to get them to be their best selves. By laughing, the theory goes, you're able to keep your cool in a stressful work situation, make peace with the hurt and pain in your past or deal with the stress of a serious illness.

That doesn't mean the days of "take two aspirin and call me in the morning" are completely gone. Laughter therapy can't take the place of conventional therapies entirely, but there is increasing evidence that a few hearty chuckles can help you along the road to recovery. You might see more humor rooms in hospitals, as well as laughter wagons full of funny books, games and toys roaming the halls. You might be asked to do a few laughter exercises before your shift at work or before baring your soul to your therapist. And don't forget the clowns -- they'll be there, too. Before we send in the clowns, let's take a look at what they're trying to accomplish with their zany brand of therapy.


Theory Behind Laughter Therapy

Humor can also aid doctor-patient relationships.
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The healing properties of laughter have been extolled since biblical times; in the book of Proverbs, you'll find this advice: "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine" [source: Brody]. When it comes to modern day laughter therapy, however, you'll want to consider the book of Cousins. More precisely, the tome "Anatomy of an Illness (As Perceived by the Patient)," written by Norman Cousins in 1979.

When Cousins was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, he was given very slim odds of recovery. He was unable to move and in constant pain. However, in the midst of this dire situation, Cousins didn't lose his sense of humor. He credits his recovery to a prescription of "Candid Camera" episodes, Marx Brothers movies and funny stories read by nurses. With 10 minutes of laughter, he wrote, two hours of pain-free sleep could be procured.


Since then, numerous studies have found that while laughter isn't necessarily the best medicine, it's pretty darn good. For example, a study conducted at UCLA found that watching funny shows increased children's tolerance for pain, which could be helpful when tiny patients have to undergo big procedures [source: UCLA]. At the University of Maryland, researchers found that groups that watched humorous films experienced an increase in blood flow compared to groups that watched downers [source: Wolf].

That could be because laughter has been called internal jogging, and it may confer all the psychological benefits of a good workout [source: Brody]. The act of laughing stimulates hormones called catecholamines, which in turn release the happy juice -- endorphins. With endorphins surging through our bloodstream, we're more apt to feel happy and relaxed. With each laugh, therefore, we're relieving stress, reducing anxiety and increasing our stores of personal energy. All of these psychological and physiological results are wonderful tools in coping with illness, a hospital stay or even just a cranky coworker.

But if you're facing cancer, battling depression, or dealing with the meanest boss on the planet, can anything truly seem funny?


Laughing to Get Happy

Humor is highly subjective -- what gives one person the giggles might just as easily put another to sleep. Part of laughter therapy is figuring out exactly what tickles your funny bone, so that getting some healing laughs can be just as easy as popping in a DVD. Have no fear about dealing with a curmudgeon who disdains the wit of Woody Allen or those madcap Muppets, though. Proponents of laughter therapy don't limit themselves just to jokes.

Fake laughter can be just as effective as real laughter, meaning that a laughter therapy session is just as likely to involve that zany Garfield as it is to involve a laughter coach imploring you to pretend your arms are paws and roar with laughter. Or perhaps you'll be invited to exercise some lawnmower laughter, in which you pretend to start up a mower with a few warm-up chuckles, eventually revving up to powerful laughter. People who lead laughter therapy sessions have found that these fake laughs usually give way to the real kind.


Figuring out what makes you happy, as well as cultivating the ability to find humor and laughter in everyday situations, can relieve the stress and tension that comes with life's challenges. Let's say you get devastating news, like a cancer diagnosis. You can choose to be miserable and sink into a depression that will only make fighting cancer harder. By choosing to laugh and foster happiness, you'll have more energy to fight, and you don't have to put your life on hold due to disease. It holds true for everything from disease to an assignment to work with your worst nemesis -- when you find ways to laugh and be happy, you remain in control, even if it seems like everything else is out of your hands.

Laughing at Things That Hurt

Instead of wallowing in embarrassment, consider how falling down the stairs in front of everyone could be turned into a funny anecdote.
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If you think there are some things in life that simply can't be laughed away, consider the story of Annette Goodheart. Goodheart was sexually molested as a child, married an alcoholic and indulged her demons with compulsive overeating [source: McCarthy]. She credits laughter with her recovery and now, armed with her Ph.D., Goodheart counsels others on how to laugh through pain. She doesn't tell jokes, but rather provides space for her patients to laugh, even when society would rather we keep a stiff upper lip.

We all know people who are wound too tightly, who are holding on to past pain. Laughter can help those people loosen their grip and begin to let go of what's bothering them. Researchers at Texas A&M University found that humor leads to increased hopefulness [source: Texas A&M University]. The researchers believe that laughter can help fight negative thoughts in the brain, and with an increase of positive emotions, people begin to see a way out of their misery. Free from the shackles of negativity, people begin to see how to form a plan of attack to deal with the given situation.


Laughing at things that hurt can be cathartic and serve as a way for people to regain control over situations that left them feeling powerless. Even a chuckle after being admonished by a rude police officer can help you to let go of the small stuff. While we could all afford to take life a little less seriously, there are a few instances to tread carefully with laughter therapy. Using humor that could be construed negatively, such as sarcasm, can do further damage. It's also important to consider the willingness of your patient -- not everyone is ready to let loose with the ho-ho-ho's as soon as they arrive in the hospital. It may be more suitable in the aftermath of a crisis or in a recovery situation [source: MacDonald].

So, before you get yourself all worked up over something that seems like the end of the world, consider whether it wouldn't be easier to see what's playing on Comedy Central. With a few good laughs, your cable bill can double as your therapist's bill.

For more on how laughter and happiness can work wonders in your life, see the links on the next page.


Frequently Asked Questions

Can laughter therapy help with chronic diseases beyond pain management?
While laughter therapy primarily promotes psychological benefits such as stress reduction and mood improvement, its indirect effects may also support individuals with chronic diseases by enhancing overall well-being and potentially improving immune system response.
How can someone incorporate laughter therapy into their daily routine if they're not naturally inclined to humor?
Incorporating laughter therapy into daily life can be as simple as watching comedic movies or shows, reading funny books or participating in laughter yoga classes. Starting with small doses and gradually integrating more sources of laughter can help in developing a greater appreciation for humor.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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  • American Physiological Society. "Anticipating a Laugh Reduces Our Stress Hormones, Study Shows." April 10, 2008. (June 1, 2009)http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2008/04/080407114617.htm
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