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Laughter is the best medicine

Steps to Success

When is being red in the face, gasping for breath with an aching gut, a good thing?

When you are laughing.

That wholehearted, shoulder-shaking, belly laugh that I’m hazarding a guess you’d say you probably don’t get enough of. I’m not sure many of us do. Life seems to be so terribly serious as of late, at least we are taking it that way. News tends to be gloomy and the general mood is rather sombre. Perhaps we feel we don’t have much to laugh about, but as I have discovered, that is all the more reason why we should.

I had the pleasure of attending the Just For Laughs comedy show this past weekend, and by the end I needed to massage my hurting cheeks from so much smiling and guffawing. It just felt so good and I was inspired to find out more about this elixir called laughter, often quipped to really be “the best medicine”.

It turns out, that ‘gelotology’, which is the study of laughter, has uncovered a multitude of benefits from engaging in a bit of giggling. On a physical level, the healthy side-effects of a good laugh include exercised lungs, increased blood flow and oxygenation, reduced stress, lower blood pressure and an increase in the ‘happiness’ hormones endorphins and dopamine which can lead to reduced pain and a greater relaxation response. Laughter also activates and strengthens the immune system, according to a study by Dr L Berk from Loma Linda School of Public Health in California.

Indeed, it seems to be great medicine. It worked for Norman Cousins who experimented on himself with the healing powers of laughter and wrote, ‘Anatomy of an Illness’. And the 1998 film ‘Patch Adams’ portrayed a rather Hollywood-ised version of the work of Dr Hunter Doherty “Patch” Adams who uses humour and joy as part of his philosophy and medical approach.

Aiming to maximise these healthful benefits, laughter yoga was developed, where practitioners get together to … laugh! One might wonder how — as we might not all be natural joke crackers. Interestingly, our bodies don’t really distinguish between pretending to laugh and a genuine ‘Ha! Ha!’ so apparently invoking playfulness and faking it produces similar good feelings and is reported to quickly turn to real laughter anyway.

Dr William Fry of Stanford University found that laughing 200 times burns off the same amount of calories as ten minutes on a rowing machine.

And beyond just the physical, other research has highlighted laughter’s benefits to also our cognitive and emotional well-being, including:

* Increased creativity

* Improved problem-solving

* Enhanced memory (for humorous material)

* Increased ability to cope with stress, by providing an alternative, less serious perspective on one’s problems

* Elevated mood and feelings of well-being

* Reduced depression, anxiety, and tension

* Increased self-esteem and resilience

* Increased hope, optimism, energy, and vigour

The evidence suggests that, as individuals, laughing can do us a lot of good. But laughing is also fundamentally a social sport. It is one of the first things we do as babies and is universal. Its importance lies as a form of bonding and it establishes a connection and emotionally attunes people together, so says neuroscientist Robert Provine, PhD in his book, ‘Laughter: A Scientific Investigation’.

Some of his other findings include:

* Laughter plays a big role in mating, men like women who laugh heartily in their presence;

* Both sexes laugh a lot, but females laugh 126 percent more than their male counterparts while men are more laugh-getters;

* The laughter of the female is the critical index of a healthy relationship

* Laughter in relationships declines dramatically as people age.

I was recently coaching a couple who had come to me on the brink of divorce. One of the first things we did was to work on improving communication and part of this involved finding ways to diffuse tension and create a loving and open environment for engaging with each other. Laughter was the key. Not using humour to deflect serious discussion, which is a defence mechanism used by some, and certainly not to belittle the importance of what was being discussed, but instead as a way to keep the atmosphere light and the connection between the couple strong and positive to deal with those difficult subjects. One step they took was to create little triggers that either prompted a laugh or eased the tension if one or other started to spiral downwards into an unhelpful state. The overall results have been very positive. This couple reports getting along better than ever and they say they spend a lot of time laughing with one another.

Laughing together can be a vital part of maintaining healthy relationships, romantic or otherwise, including in the workplace. There are many assumptions made that ‘work is serious business’ and there is no room for laughter in the workplace. However, a recent study among Canadian financial institutions found that managers who facilitated the highest level of employee performance used humour the most often. And the Harvard Business Review found that executives with a sense of humour climb the corporate ladder faster and make more money in their career.

With its creativity and communication improving properties, laughter naturally promotes productivity in the workplace. And when the atmosphere is light and enjoyable, employee morale is boosted and attrition goes down as people look forward to coming into the office. Some successful companies like Google and Virgin have fully capitalised on this idea, yet even the most traditional of work environments can find ways to embrace the importance of humour and laughter.

So how can we up our funnies? Here are a few tips to help increase the amount of laughter in our lives:

* Consciously smile more — this puts us that much closer to laughing and as our bodies don’t know the difference: ‘fake it til you make it’

* Laugh at ourselves — when we find ourselves taking something way too seriously, stop and have a chuckle at our foibles and human nature

* Share your silly or embarrassing stories with others — at least get a laugh out of life’s little quirks

* Look for the humour in even the serious stuff, point out absurdities, find word plays, make up ridiculous songs or try taking a comical view of otherwise solemn issues

* Keep funny reminders in plain sight

* Think back to the last time you really laughed … uncontrollably — let it generate a chuckle

* Incorporate elements of games and silly ritual into your workday

* Give funny names to projects

* Have a laughter match and see who can laugh the longest and loudest

* Go to a comedy or improv show, or watch great comedy on TV, preferably with someone close to you

* Spend more time with the people who make you laugh.

Laughter, like yawning, is contagious. There was even a reported laughter epidemic that broke out in Tanganyika in the early 60s and lasted for six months.

So why not choose to take advantage of all the benefits of the simple act of laughing and also spread the joy? Laugh long and prosper.

Julia Pitt is a trained success coach and certified NLP practitioner. For further information telephone 705-7488 or visit www.juliapittcoaching.com.

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Published January 15, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated January 14, 2013 at 3:11 pm)

Laughter is the best medicine

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