English, maths, laughter — that’s the timetable some sixth-form students from one school in Brighton may be following after the introduction of laughter therapy classes to help with stress and anxiety. But can being made to laugh really help people feel calmer?
It’s well known that laughter is good for well-being — when we laugh (which the average adult does 17 times a day), it prompts a cascade of stress-busting reactions.
‘The physical act of laughing, the pumping up and down of the diaphragm [a dome-shaped muscle beneath the lungs] to expel air from the lungs, triggers the endorphin system in the brain,’ says Robin Dunbar, an emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University.
‘Endorphins make you relaxed, happy and seem to dampen down cortisol, a stress hormone.’
It’s well known that laughter is good for well-being — when we laugh (which the average adult does 17 times a day), it prompts a cascade of stress-busting reactions
Endorphins also help release nitric oxide, a chemical that helps relax tense muscles, enhancing the stress-busting effects. Nitric oxide dilates blood vessels, too, which may help explain why laughter has been shown to lower blood pressure.
Exactly why it might have this positive effect on stress is unclear. There’s probably quite a complex network of brain regions involved in laughter, says Professor Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at University College London. ‘But we do clearly see that the hypothalamus is activated, which we know has a role in stress,’ she adds.
The hypothalamus controls the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for our fight-or-flight response). ‘As soon as people start laughing, you see a drop in levels of the fight-or-flight hormone, adrenaline,’ says Professor Scott.
These chemical changes make us calmer while we laugh — and afterwards. A 2020 study by Basel University, Switzerland, found that the more people laughed during a day, the less they felt affected by stressful events.
While natural, spontaneous laughter has the most powerful impact, there’s evidence that even faked laughter can reduce our reaction to stress.
It does this through an effect known as motion creates emotion theory. When you use the facial muscles involved in smiling and laughing, this sends feedback to the brain that then releases chemical messengers — for instance, serotonin — that improve our mood, explains Dr Natalie van der Wal, an associate professor from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and an expert in cognitive and social psychology. It’s this response that is used in laughter therapy.
Endorphins also help release nitric oxide, a chemical that helps relax tense muscles, enhancing the stress-busting effects. Nitric oxide dilates blood vessels, too, which may help explain why laughter has been shown to lower blood pressure
In a class of laughter therapy — also known as laughter yoga — participants do exercises that make them smile, such as dancing and clapping, and sing or say words that sound similar to laughter, such as ‘ha ha ha’. And, yes, they also have to pretend to laugh.
The idea is that doing so switches on your endorphin production and triggers real laughter.
‘On top of this, the practice also uses yogic breathing, which slows the breath; and meditation, which may increase its stress-reducing effects,’ says laughter yoga therapist Emma Jennings, who is running the classes in Brighton.
The combination seems pretty effective. A review of studies on laughter therapy, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine in 2019, found that 18 out of 19 studies showed a clear reduction in how stressed people felt after trying laughter therapy.
And it doesn’t take long to show benefits: a 2021 study by researchers in Germany and Canada found even just one 30-minute session could reduce cortisol levels. It’s this kind of evidence that led to Brighton Girls School starting laughter lessons.
The NHS has previously offered laughter yoga to patients as part of the social prescribing scheme (where GPs can offer non-medical activities that can improve physical and mental well-being).
But when it comes to laughter classes specifically, Professor Scott isn’t convinced about the practice being prescribed widely. ‘Some people greatly dislike being forced to laugh as they find it embarrassing or uncomfortable,’ she says. ‘In these people, cortisol levels might rise during the lessons, which would be detrimental.
‘For them, it might be more helpful if the therapy was delivered via natural opportunities, such as schools setting aside a separate period to have fun with friends. The social element of laughter is important; you’re more likely to laugh with others than alone.’
Emma Jennings admits that laughter therapy ‘is a bit like Marmite — some people love it, others don’t’. If you’re keen to try it, you can find a local class online (laughteryoga.co.uk) — or fake it.
Meanwhile, Dr van der Wal says: ‘Try to find something that makes you laugh for a minute a day — and make it a ritual, like cleaning your teeth. The more you make it a habit, the easier it will become.’