Laughter as Therapy

devawings laughing yogaA Brief History of Laughter as Therapy

Laughter has a colourful history. At some point someone laughed and his/her fellow humans felt compelled to laugh as well. It may well have been at the sight of an unexpected event, or something quintessentially human, but someone laughed at something, and others couldn’t help but laugh along.

In olden times in India there were sages who travelled the land and instead of preaching and teaching they simply laughed. They laughed and others laughed with them and people came to understand the benefits of having a good chuckle.

In ancient Greece it is reported that hospitals were built near the theatres so that the recovering patients would benefit from the radiance of laughter from the audiences enjoying comedic plays next door.

Laughter has had an eventful history and one of ups and downs. Perhaps erring on the side of caution, Plato recommended that literature be edited to delete mention of gods or heroes being ‘overcome with laughter’. As early as the 13th century, some surgeons used humour to distract patients from the pain of surgery. In the 16th century the Puritans banned the expression of laughter and even of smiling – one man being locked up for several days for smiling at a baptism. In another part of the world Martin Luther used a form of “humour therapy” in some of his care of people with depression. Advising them to avoid isolation, but to surround themselves with friends who could joke and make them laugh.

In the darkest days of WWII, a survivor of the concentration camps wrote that prayer and humour were their best defence against the violence of their oppressors. He wrote “I am more sure than ever that humour is one of the greatest gifts God gave mankind to pull itself out of despair.” On a lighter note, Moliere (1622-1673) wrote: “Our minds need relaxation and give way, Unless we mix with work a little play.”

In our own century, (1971) Patch Adams had the idea of an Institute where patients could receive healing through humour and goodwill. 1976 saw an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine by Norman Cousins. So severe was his condition that he was given a one in five hundred chance of recovery and a few months to live. Reasoning that negative thoughts and attitudes could result in illness, then positive thoughts and attitudes may well have the opposite effect. Cousins left the hospital and checked into a hotel where he watched humorous movies and shows, including ‘Candid Camera’ and ‘the Marx Brothers’. Amongst his other interventions, he found that ten minutes of boisterous laughter resulted in at least two hours of pain-free sleep. He continued his unusual routine until he recovered. (Cousins emphasised that in order to recover he brought a “full range of positive emotions into play, including love, hope, faith, will to live, festivity, purpose and determination.”)

In 1991, England, saw the first official National Health Service project called the Stress Buster Clinic. Established by Dr. Robert Holden, the Stress Buster Clinic as well as The Happiness Project (1996) trained over 10,000 doctors, nurses, psychologists and other health professionals.

1n 1996, a worldwide laughter movement began: At 4 a.m. on the 13 March, Dr. Madan Kataria awoke with the idea to establish a Laughter Club. Dr. Kataria went to his local park and managed to motivate four people to laugh with him. They started with jokes but realised that these corrupted the tone of what he was aiming for, and they developed a system to laugh without them.

Inspired by Madan and his wife Madhuri, at the time of writing there are now some 5,000+ Laughter Clubs worldwide, meeting at least once a week to have a half hour laugh session. The aim of these ‘Laughter Yoga’ clubs being to bring about world peace through assisting individuals to find that peace within themselves.

Laughter has also found its way into many of the helping professions as well as giving stressed workers a way to manage the modern lifestyle.

Today – in hospitals, palliative care, TV stations for people in recovery, Laughter Clubs, and more, laughter is being used to uplift people everywhere – helping them to re-balance and to connect with their abundance of health again.

So – why not be a part of history – have a good laugh and see how you feel. Better still, attend a Laughter Club and laugh and play freely with others for half an hour and see what difference it makes – you might just be amazed at the effects is has to your well-being.

Arjuna Govinda (2007)