Just as many of us have forgotten how to laugh, scientists have begun to study the benefits of laughter. Dr. Lee Berk of Loma Linda University in California has researched laughter extensively and has shown that not only is the immune system boosted, but natural killer cells-which fight certain types of cancer-are increased when we laugh.
For over 800 years the residents of Hofu, Japan, have been celebrating laughter in the form of “waraiko,” which roughly translates as “laughing their way to heaven.”
History tells us that the ritual was started by farmers as a way to cope with the difficulties of life. Only 21 households–descendants of the original participants of this ritual–have inherited the privilege of offering this joyous sound to the gods each year on the first Sunday in December. Laughter was apparently recognized as a good way to relieve stress even centuries ago.
In the present, the difficulties of life–the juggling act we carry out while trying to combine the increasing demands of work and home–have caused our stress levels to steadily rise. Worry, doubt, and fear fill us when we watch the nightly news, bombarding us with negativity. When this bombardment finally makes us sick, we’re told to ingest chemicals in the form of pills.
According to a study by German psychologist Dr. Michael Titze, people in the 1950s laughed for an average of 18 minutes a day, but people today laugh an average of only six minutes a day, despite much improvement in living standards. Many of us also lack the ability to simply relax and let our minds focus on calming activities. As children we frequently laughed hundreds of times a day, but as adults we often laugh only 10 to 15 times a day. What has happened to our laughter?
Science Gets the Joke
Just as many of us have forgotten how to laugh, scientists have begun to study the benefits of laughter. Dr. Lee Berk of Loma Linda University in California has researched laughter extensively and has shown that not only is the immune system boosted, but natural killer cells–which fight certain types of cancer–are increased when we laugh (Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, 2001). A 2005 study by Dr. Michael Miller at the University of Maryland School of Medicine indicates that laughter helps with the dilation of blood vessels, specifically the cardiovascular system.
Dr. Annette Goodheart has been using laughter in her psychology practice since the 1970s. She was–along with Norman Cousins, author of Anatomy of an Illness–one of the first to recognize the benefits of laughing. Laughter is contagious and often acts as an emotional release. If you want to have a good giggle, visit Dr. Goodheart’s website at teehee.com and listen to her laugh—you’ll likely join in with a laugh or at least a smile. Dr. Goodheart’s work has been at the forefront of the contemporary laughter movement.
The current trend in this movement is the rise of laughter clubs across Canada. Are you terminally serious? Picture yourself leaving work, exhausted and tense. On your way home you stop at the local laughter club. You spend half an hour laughing, and at the end of these giggle exercises you feel refreshed, lighter in spirit, and happier–like a weight has been removed from your shoulders. You drive home afterward feeling wonderfully relaxed, a smile on your face.
Whether you have been stimulated to laugh through jokes, or you have simulated laughter by pretending, the body doesn’t know the difference, and the fake laughter soon becomes real. As Dr. Goodheart says, “Fake it ’til you make it.” Either way, the physiological and psychological benefits of laughter remain the same.
Laughter is one of the best stress relievers there is, but it’s also an attitude and a way of looking at life. Workplaces that encourage employees to laugh when they feel stressed will be healthier and happier environments, resulting in increased productivity.
For more information on laughter clubs in Canada and across the globe, see these Web pages:
- laughteryoga.ca (Canadian laughter yoga site)
- laughteryoga.org (international laughter yoga site)
- worldlaughtertour.com (US laughter site, including Canadian laughter leaders)
Wouldn’t you like to have the last laugh?
Waraiko Consists of Three Hearty Laughs:
- First laugh–in gratitude for the passing year (praise)
- Second laugh–in prayer for the coming year (promise)
- Third laugh–for clarity to clear the mind and heart (purpose)