When you laugh, you can immediately reap the rewards—your mood improves and you relax. And it doesn’t stop there as in the long term, more chuckles can give your heart health a boost, and reduce stress.
But with everything going on in the world, it can be hard to laugh. Spending time with the people, comedians, movies, or TV shows that make us laugh the most is a good start, but there’s an even easier way to get the benefits of some extra cackles: making yourself laugh through simulated laughter.
Laughing is healthy
Neuroimmunologists, the scientists who study the interaction between our nervous and immune systems, have shown that laughter can help us get rid of stress faster. In a 1989 study published in The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, researchers took blood samples from 10 men watching a funny hour-long video and found that their levels of a stress hormone called cortisol decreased faster than those of the control group. A similar, larger study published in 2001 in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, showed that people who watched a single, hour-long funny video had a significant boost in their immune response. This means laughter not only decreases stress but also has the potential to help fight other illnesses.
[Related: Why does laughing feel so stinkin’ good?]
In the long term, minor drops in stress levels and an improved immune function can have a dramatic effect on your wellbeing. In 2016, public health researchers from Japan used data from the Japan Gerontological Evaluation Study—including self-reported data from 20,000 adults aged 65 years and older—to analyze cardiovascular risk. They found that even after controlling for other risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and body mass index, the prevalence of heart disease was 20 percent higher in those who said they rarely or never laugh, compared to those who reported laughing every day.
You don’t need a joke to laugh
When we think of laughter, we normally think of spontaneous or stimulated chuckles. The former happens when we hear a funny joke, for example, while the second occurs when someone tickles us. But there are other types of laughter—it can be induced (with medications like laughing gas), pathologic (due to brain damage or certain psychiatric disorders), or simulated.
That last one is different from other kinds of chuckles because you can generate it whenever you want, without any specific purpose. Unlike spontaneous laughter, simulated laughter allows you to retain total control of your body movements and the intensity and duration of your own cackle. The best part about simulated laughter is that it provides many of the benefits of spontaneous laughter, like lower blood pressure, improved sleep quality, and reduced chronic muscular pain.
When it comes to mental health, simulated laughter may even be better than spontaneous laughter. In a 2019 meta-analysis published in Social Sciences & Medicine, researchers of behavioral psychology at Vrije University in the Netherlands examined 29 different studies that looked at both types of laughter. They found that simulated laughter was doubly effective at reducing depression and anxiety, compared to spontaneous laughter.
If you want to start reaping the health benefits of simulated laughter, you can start now. Before you start, and whether you do it alone or in a group, there are a few things you should note to get the maximum benefit—laugh in sessions of at least three minutes, twice a week, or more, for a minimum of six to eight weeks.
How to laugh on your own
It may sound completely silly, but simulated laughter can be fun to do by yourself. The easiest way to start is a fake laugh, which you can then try to turn into laughter that gradually becomes longer and louder. If you have trouble with this technique, begin with a loud “ha-ha-ha” or “ho-ho-ho”. With practice, you can slowly build yourself up to the recommended three minutes.
If that doesn’t work for you, or you want some variety, there are a few other methods you can try.
First, there is lion laughter. Start by looking in a mirror, opening your mouth wide, and sticking your tongue out. Continue by pretending your hands are paws by opening them up and swatting at the air. Then, roar like a lion, and in between roars, laugh as much as possible.
A second technique is crying laughter. In this method, you repeatedly lean forward and pretend to cry, and then lean back and laugh as much as you can.
Finally, you might want to try laughing with yourself. To do this, think about a silly mistake you made, acknowledge it, and just start laughing.
If you need them, there are online videos and guides available for solo laughter sessions. Robert Rivest, a certified laughter yoga master trainer, has several YouTube videos that can guide you through a laughter yoga session if you want to chuckle and stretch at the same time. There are also many laughter meditation guides available online with different durations. One version by Melissa Eisler, is a simple 10-minute routine you can do on the go.
Better to laugh as a group
As practical as solo laughter is, a lot of people like to get together and simulate chuckles in a guided group.
But before you engage in collective laughter, experts recommend you follow some simple guidelines. First, make sure you’re comfortable at all times: wear comfy clothes and bring a cushion or mat if the group will be doing floor exercises. If any of the movements—or poses in the case of laughter yoga—are painful, it’s okay to skip them. Second, if the simulated laughter turns into spontaneous laughter or vice versa, that’s okay—it’s all beneficial. Third, maintain eye contact with those in the group, as it helps keep you present and transmit the laughter to others. Fourth, since the point is to laugh as much as possible, try to avoid talking unless it is part of the session. Finally, as much as possible, smile, laugh, and encourage laughter in others.
[Related: Laughter is a key part of play for many animals]
While laughter yoga is the most popular form of simulated laughter, there are other ways to do it in a group, such as laughter gymnastics or with music and other forms of art.
Laughter is an expression of joy, and other than providing health benefits, it should help us be happier. Enjoy it.