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Laughing is the trendy new therapy
An uncontrollable urge to laugh is building within me.
My shoulders start to shake and my tummy quivers. Then a chuckle comes out of my mouth and I use my hands to cover it. But it doesn’t work: the laughter just keeps on growing.
I let out a titter, a snort, then I feel a full-on fit coming. I haven’t laughed so hard since history class at school, where giggling in a lesson resulted in me being sent out of the room.
Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! I double over and can feel tears come to my eyes. Luckily, everyone around me is in the same state – and it’s wonderful.
No, we’re not watching a first-rate comedian or cracking up at a witty dinner party joke. We are taking part in a very trendy – and rather bizarre – form of therapy that harnesses the power of laughter to boost mood and health.
I’m in a suburban semi in Stanmore, North-West London, in a living room with a nice beige sofa and the sound of a lawnmower going next door, and along with a group of others, have been told to force myself to laugh.
Laughter groups such as these are appearing all over the country. People meet with just one purpose: to laugh for an hour or two at absolutely nothing. Advocates believe it relieves stress and loneliness, and increases confidence. And thanks to the workout it gives stomach muscles, it can even be the equivalent of 30 minutes in the gym.
Laughter therapy was started in 1995 by Indian physician Dr Madan Kataria, who found that controlled breathing, combined with laughter, had great health benefits.
Big corporate organisations such as accountants Ernst & Young are now offering laughter therapy to relieve stress, while the NHS has introduced it for staff to tackle its soaring number of sick days.
We all know laughter is the best medicine – but do we really need to throw ourselves into a room of strangers to do it? Surely we can just switch on a comedy show and have a giggle with friends and family?
“A lot of us live a stressful, fast-paced lifestyle which means there’s not a lot of room for laughter,” says Melanie Bloch, the laughter therapist I visit.
“The average child laughs 400 times a day, while the average adult laughs only about 15 times. Truth is, there aren’t always enough funny things going on in our lives – and we might need a bit of help.”
Mel explains that she started the class after her own mother died. As an alternative therapist, she was well-versed in different forms of treatment, and immediately felt the benefit of laughter therapy. She now uses it to help people with depression, anxiety, shyness and low self-confidence.
In my case, I would say I’m a generally content kind of person, but I don’t laugh very much – and certainly not like I did as a child. In fact, I think I’ve become quite serious and worthy now I’m in my 30s. I watch weepies, not comedies, and I’m more likely to be having deep conversations with friends than having a laugh.
Maybe it’s time to lighten up. So I join one of Melanie’s monthly sessions. There are eight of us, aged from 30 to 60, in her bright living room – seven women and one brave man.
There’s one other newcomer besides me. The others are monthly regulars. They greet each other warmly and already seem to be a happy bunch.
“You’ll love it,” says Gaby Cohen. “The first time I came, I was self-conscious and felt silly, but you learn to let go.”
Letting go and feeling silly are not my strong points. I feel strangely nervous.
We begin by putting our hands on our midriffs and do deep diaphragmatic breathing. As we breathe out, we are told to make the literal sound: “Ha, ha, ha, ha…”
Next, we have to walk around and make eye contact with everyone in the room while exaggerating our laughter, as if we find something so funny that we can’t contain ourselves.
I feel stupid and shy gawping at strangers and cackling at them, but everybody else seems quite at home with it all. They’re doubling up and giving each other high-fives and slapping each other’s arms.
Mel explains that it doesn’t matter if your laughter is genuine: “Your body doesn’t know the difference between real and pretend laughter, so even if you don’t feel like laughing, you’ll still get the endorphins going.”
Laughter is contagious, of course. Studies show we are 30 times more likely to laugh if someone else does.
Mel talks over our mirth by explaining some of the health benefits of laughter. Researchers from Indiana State University found that the right dose of laughter can boost the immune system by up to 40 percent, protect against heart disease and increase our pain threshold.
But the best part about the class seems to be the bonding between all of us. People who were total strangers one hour earlier now feel like my friends. Looking into each other’s eyes and shrieking like a banshee is not only an ice-breaker, it feels strangely intimate.
That’s because studies have found laughing is a key mechanism for bonding with others. Research at University College London established that couples who laugh with each other get over tensions quicker than partners who don’t.
Another UCL study showed that strangers who watch a funny film together are more likely to share intimate information afterwards.
“Laughter opens us up to feeling more connected with others,” says Melanie. “It’s why so many friendships are made in our groups.”
So by the time we’re pretending to throw our negative thoughts into an imaginary pot in the centre of the room, while cackling like witches, I feel that I’m surrounded by friends.
And when we lie in a circle with our heads all together in the middle, while wiggling our legs and singing and giggling, I am having the kind of fun I don’t think I’ve had since playschool.
A week later and I am still laughing at anything and everything. I suspect my friends think I’ve turned into a laughing idiot. Which, of course, I find very funny.