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LOL! Why today is a day you should laugh

No?

Well, according to the organisers of World Laughter Day, it’s no joke.

On Sunday, thousands of people around the world will be forcing themselves to laugh because they are convinced something that many see as an involuntary process but can in fact be deliberate, has far-reaching effects.

LOL! Why today is a day you should laugh
LOL! Why today is a day you should laugh

There are events taking place across the UK encouraging people to come together to laugh, most not involving a single comedian.

For some years, doctors and scientists have been studying the physiological and psychological effects for humans of laughter.

Gelotologists, as people who study laughter are known, believe laughter evolved from the behaviour our ape ancestors exhibited during some forms of bonding.

A chimpanzee smiling
Image:Chimpanzees are among the animals which make a sound like laughing

Modern day chimps – genetically our closest animal relatives – produce similar sounds in rough play, which some have interpreted as an indicator that the games are not genuinely aggressive.

Unlike other verbal utterances, laughing does not use many of the muscles associated with speech, but involves many changes in breath pressure and facial expression, suggesting its origins are much older than our ability to speak.

Instead, during exuberant laughter, thoughts and emotions trigger the muscles of the arms, legs and abdomen in an often uncontrollable display.

Experts have long noted that when we laugh with others, it creates social bonds, as we recognise we are experiencing similar emotions to our immediate neighbours.

Indeed, possibly because it predates speech, it can bring people together even if they don’t speak the same language, with one recent study finding it was the only thing understood by an African culture when they heard recorded Britons chatting.

Three decades ago, a doctor in India became convinced that the reflex action that causes us to go “ha, ha, ha”, had consequences beyond merely the sound it made or the relations it smoothed.

Dr Madan Kataria used traditional Indian practices to create a new form of exercise, called laughter yoga, which aimed to help people come together and feel better.

World Laughter Day sprung from his research, in a bid to get increasing numbers of people taking advantage of its benefits.

Dr Madan Kataria, pictured here leading prisoners in laughter yoga, created the therapy
Image:Dr Madan Kataria, pictured here leading prisoners in laughter yoga, created the therapy

Odette Kurland, who as the founder of Laughter Yoga Wellness London is one of the organisers of some of the day’s events in the capital, is keen to extol what she believes it offers.

She told Sky News World Laughter Day was founded on the idea that getting people to laugh together can help promote world peace.

“Dr Katari was a medical doctor who found evidence that the body cannot tell the difference between real and simulated laughter through yoga.

“He got together with a group of friends in Mumbai to get people to laugh because the benefits are fantastic.”

Laughter yoga involves using a combination of deep breathing exercises and voluntarily moving the diaphragm to force laughter when someone exhales.

When within a group, it often causes involuntary laughter.

Ms Kurland, who also practises under the nickname Lady Ha Ha, says that causes the brain to produce chemicals that have positive effects.

Indian women attend a laughter yoga session at a park during a World Laughter Day event in Mumbai
Image:Indian women attend a laughter yoga session at a park during a World Laughter Day event in Mumbai

She claims it can be used to treat bipolar disorder, depression and even chronic pain.

“When you laugh, the endorphins you release are stronger and more powerful that morphine.

“People with chronic pain who have done laughter yoga sessions have told me it has been the first time they have felt no pain for a long time.”

Others, she claims, have spent 10 minutes laughing and ended up with pain relief effects that last two hours.

Indeed, some of its practitioners have been working with carers, people who in looking after dependants at home suffer a particular type of isolation, to help improve their lives.

Ms Kurland says the advantage of using laughter yoga over comedy is that listening to jokes can be highly subjective.

“In my opinion, it does not matter what’s making you laugh, so long as you experience the health benefits, but humour is subjective. With laughter yoga, you will have guaranteed laughter.”

Science had proven some of the claims of laughter yoga, but is sceptical of others.

Advocates claim that forced laughter can be an effective therapy, in the same way other yogas can
Image:Advocates claim that forced laughter can be an effective therapy, in the same way other yogas can

Dr Sophie Scott, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Speech Communication Lab, University College London, says: “It’s true that there are measurable benefits for pain, but that is entirely due to the exercise that you are doing.

“It would be the same if you were running on the spot. You do get a decrease in adrenaline and a decrease in cortisol, the stress hormone.

“You get an impact on brain chemistry, you feel better.

“But there is no evidence that there are health benefits beyond that.”

She says that she knew of people who could in fact experience the opposite effect, by being made to laugh when they don’t want to.

“Many people won’t laugh at any time. They feel awkward. I know people who hate laughter yoga for that reason. One friend, his cortisol actually rose. When I tried it, I got a migraine.”

The effects of involuntary laughter are wider, however.

Dr Scott says: “There is evidence that married couples, for example, who deal with stress with laughter, stay together longer.

Some say that laughter yoga can treat depression. File pic
Image:Some say that laughter yoga can treat depression

“But it’s not limited to those in romantic relationships. Its importance as a behaviour cannot be understated. It depends on the social context.

“I also know people who do not like to go to stand up comedy because they don’t want to be forced to laugh.”

What’s clear is that in order for people to laugh, they need to be with others and people they feel comfortable with – jokes are not enough.

But, Dr Scott has no doubt about its benefits, whatever makes you titter, chuckle, snort or guffaw.

“We learn the importance of laughter very early. Babies have been found to pay attention to their parents’ laughter to determine whether a situation is safe. They do that long before they have language.

“It’s also been found, in research on psychopathy, that children who show the early traits do not join in (with laughter) when in groups.

“When you think about it, it only ever exists in social situations. You don’t really laugh when you are on your own.

“We’ve ignored it for too long but we are slowly learning about how important it is.”

So that’s the punchline. Whatever makes you laugh, maybe today’s the day to find someone to sit down with and find out what makes them laugh.

Perhaps that joke wouldn’t be so bad after all.

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