THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Laughter Yoga? Can We Laugh Our Way To Fitness?


Laughter is inner jogging
Norman Cousins

We love the people who make us laugh. Whether it's the class clown the funny guy at the office or a favorite, zany old Aunt, we value humor so highly that we forgive those who tickle our funny bone their short comings, perhaps more readily than we might otherwise. Plus, being the one who can be funny generally elevates our status in any given group. The group just wants that person around; at a party to get it going, at a family gathering to insure that it will be fun and at the office to break tension, turn annoying situations on their head or make a difficult boss more palatable. Humor has a way of sliding through the cracks, of reminding us that whatever is going on just isn't that important. It keeps things in perspective, provides relief, gets us to see things in new lights and yes, has tons of health benefits.And levity can, of course, defuse anger and anxiety, and in so doing it can pave the path to more comfortable connection with those around us.

"Laughter is not primarily about humor," says neurobiologist Dr. Robert Provine, "but about social relationships. "According to research ........it's the little interactions between people that make us laugh rather than the knee slapping, belly laughs. Laughter is relational; it is part of how we connect with those around us. "Neural circuits for laughter exist in very ancient regions of the brain," according to psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp, who has done extensive research on laughter. "Ancestral forms of play and laughter existed in other animals eons before we humans came along." Research in this area "is just the beginning wave of the future," said comparative ethologist Gordon Burghardt, of the University of Tennessee, who studies the evolution of play. "It will allow us to bridge the gap with other species." "Tickles are the key," Panksepp said. "They open up a previously hidden world." Panksepp had studied play vocalizations in animals for years before it occurred to him that they might be an ancestral form of laughter.

Dr. Provine also found that public speakers laugh even more than their listeners (hmm.....).

Laughter establishes--or restores--a positive emotional climate and a sense of connection among people. It breaks tension, gives a new perspective and allows a little fresh emotional air to enter the situation. And laughter has all sorts of physical benefits as well.

Physical Benefits of Laughter

Muscle Relaxation - Belly laughs result in muscle relaxation. While we laugh, the muscles that do not participate in the belly laugh, relax. After we finish laughing those muscles involved in the laughter start to relax. So, the releasing action takes place in two stages.
Reduction of Stress Hormones - Laughter reduces at least four of the neuroendocrine hormones associated with the stress response. These are epinephrine, cortisol, dopac, and growth hormone.
Pain Reduction - Humor allows a person to "forget" about pains such as aches, arthritis, etc.
Cardiac Exercise - A belly laugh is equivalent to "internal jogging." Laughter can provide good cardiac conditioning especially for those who are unable to perform physical exercises.
Blood Pressure - Women seem to benefit from laughter more than men in preventing hypertension.
Respiration - Frequent belly laughter empties our lungs of more air than it takes in resulting in a cleansing effect, similar to deep breathing. This is especially beneficial for patient's who are suffering from emphysema and other respiratory ailments.
Elevates the immune system: Clinical studies have shown that humor strengthens the immune system because of the positive body chemicals that it engenders.

Hey Baby, Did You Hear the One About....
Not surprisingly, laughter also plays a big role in mating. Apparently men like women who laugh heartily in their presence. Both sexes laugh a lot, but females laugh more--126 percent more, to be exact, than their male counterparts. Men, research reveals, are more the laugh-getters while women appreciate their jokes and share in the humor. (Anyone seeing their lives flash across their minds?) Interestingly, the laughter of the female is the critical index of a healthy relationship. One sad little finding is that laughter in relationships declines dramatically as people age. (This may be the inspiration behind the "Laughter Yoga"(check it out www.youtube.com/Laughter Yoga CNN Report)..

Like yawning, laughter is contagious; the laugher of others apparently is irresistible.
One of the best ways to stimulate laughter--and it's probably the most ancient way--is by tickling, forms of mutual play that include this kind of playful touch. Tickling is inherently social; we can't tickle ourselves. We tickle to get a response., or to entice a ticklee to turn around and become tickler. Tickling is probably at the root of lots of play and it is inherently reciprocal, a give-and-take proposition. Not to mention that it triggers sexual excitation in adults. But tickling, too, declines dramatically in middle age. People begin a gradual "tactile disengagement," reports Dr. Provine. Tickle, touch, and play, so critically intertwined, all go into retreat, although these behaviors are at the root of our emotional being.

Your Brain on a Joke: Laughter Exercises the Brain

In looking at brain scans of people while enjoying a good laugh researchers observed that while emotional responses appear to be confined to specific areas of the brain, laughter seems to be produced via a circuit that runs through many regions of the brain. Good exercise? While laughing; the left side of the cortex (the layer of cells that covers the entire surface of the forebrain) analyzes the words and structure of the joke. And the brain's large frontal lobe, which is involved in social emotional responses, becomes very active. The right hemisphere of the cortex carries out the intellectual analysis required to "get" the joke or the humorous remark or situation while at the same time all of this brainwave activity spreads to the sensory processing area of the occipital lobe (the area on the back of the head that contains the cells that process visual signals). Laughter, in other words, is a real work out both for our brains and our emotions.

So this week in addition to your crossword puzzle try to laugh your way into better health mentally, physically and relationally!

More Research for those who like it....

Theories on Forms of Humor

Humor plays many important roles in our interactions. Here are some theories as to what some of those might be.

The incongruity theory suggests that humor arises when logic and familiarity are replaced by things that don't normally go together. Researcher Thomas Veatch says a joke becomes funny when we expect one outcome and another happens. When a joke begins, our minds and bodies are already anticipating what's going to happen and how it's going to end. That anticipation takes the form of logical thought intertwined with emotion and is influenced by our past experiences and our thought processes. When the joke goes in an unexpected direction, our thoughts and emotions suddenly have to switch gears. In other words, we experience two sets of incompatible thoughts and emotions simultaneously. We experience this incongruity between the different parts of the joke as humorous. In this way humor teaches us to tolerate ambivalence.

The superiority theory comes into play when we laugh at jokes that focus on someone else's mistakes, stupidity or misfortune. We feel superior to this person, experience a certain detachment from the situation and so are able to laugh at it. Most of us like to laugh at someone sometimes, it's natural.

The relief theory is the basis for a device movie-makers have used effectively for a long time. In action films or thrillers where tension is high, the director uses comic relief at just the right times. He builds up the tension or suspense as much as possible and then breaks it down slightly with a side comment, enabling the viewer to relieve himself of pent-up emotion, just so the movie can build it up again! Similarly, an actual story or situation creates tension within us. As we try to cope with two sets of emotions and thoughts, we need a release and laughter is the way of cleansing our system of the built-up tension and anxiety.

According to Dr. Lisa Rosenberg, humor, especially dark humor, can help workers cope with stressful situations. "The act of producing humor, of making a joke, gives us a mental break and increases our objectivity in the face of overwhelming stress," she says. The class clown, the mascot or the child in the family that makes us laugh are highly prized by the group because we look to them to break and mountain tension with a joke so that we can laugh, relieve some stress and begin to get our bodies back to normal.