Last year, Freda Gonot-Schoupinsky of the University of Derby recruited 21 people to take part in a very strange experiment. Each recruit was shown how to record a Laughie, a one-minute recording of their own laughter, and told to laugh along with their Laughie, three times a day.
After just one week, the group reported experiencing a number of significant effects that they attributed to the Laughie. Nearly all of them increased in their wellbeing scores - as measured by the World Health Organisation well-being index. Many said they felt less anxious. Some said they were sleeping better. Others reported feeling less lonely.
One of the participants, 93-year-old Sylvie, said that using the Laughie had encouraged her to laugh while watching TV on her own, something she didn't normally do. Another said that the Laughie had helped her curtail her anger after a heated exchange with a friend.
There were physical effects, too. One lady said that she felt toned after one week of Laughie use; while another was amazed at what it had done to her abs.
In short, one week of laughing along to a recording of their own laughter for three minutes a day had produced some significant mental and physical changes in the participants.
You don't have to be a laughter scientist - or gelotologist, as they like to be known - to know that it's good to laugh. But you might be surprised to learn just how much of an impact laughter can have on health. It alleviates the symptoms of depression and reduces stress and anxiety. It's good for the heart and boosts the immune system. And for some muscles, it provides a workout that would normally require a gym membership.
It can also help the elderly with pain management and sleeplessness. And in those with type 2 diabetes, laughter can reduce blood sugar levels and protect against some of the complications of the condition.
But as good as it is to laugh until you cry at something funny, when it comes to your mental health, simulated laughter - also known as voluntary or self-induced laughter - is even better. A recent scientific review of 86 laughter studies found that for depression and anxiety, the therapeutic effects of simulated laughter are twice that of natural laughter.
And physically, simulated laughter can raise respiration levels in a similar way to aerobic exercise and work the internal oblique muscles to the same degree as crunches.
⬤ THE LAUGHIE
Psychological and physiological effects like these prompted Freda Gonot-Schoupinsky to investigate how simulated laughter could be utilised as a health tool that would be accessible to everyone, which led to the creation of the Laughie.
"The idea of the Laughie came from looking at how we can harness some of these laughter benefits when we're on our own," she explains. "And I was interested in seeing whether our own laughter could be contagious to us."
In social situations, other people's laughter can often be a catalyst for our own laughter. With the Laughie, however, you record one minute of your own laughter on your smart phone, then you laugh along with that recording.
"Anyone can do a Laughie," she says. "I wanted it to be available to everyone - and without cost. The only thing you need is a smart phone, and most of us have one of those now."
Recording a usable Laughie can be easier said than done, and the participants in the original study required an hour of mentoring before recording theirs. However, Freda has devised four principles and techniques that should help most people record and successfully use their own Laughie.
"The first is 'natural is best,'" she explains. "The original recording - and when you're laughing along with it - should really be natural. It should sound like how you would laugh in a natural situation - at something which is funny. If you have laughter which sounds fake, it doesn't work.
"The second is 'enjoy it however you want.' During that one minute, do whatever makes you happy and whatever you find enjoyable. You can either think of nothing or you can think of funny things. You can wave your arms around. Just enjoy it how you want.
"The third is 'train to gain.' The Laughie is a completely new way of laughing - and it's strange. But it just takes a little bit of training to get used to. It's one minute - and you can get so many benefits from this one minute.
"And the fourth is 'laugh for a reason.' It can be any sort of reason that makes sense to you in the moment - or long-term. A long-term reason may be your health. A short-term reason may be that you're feeling angry and you want to dissipate some of the anger."
According to Freda, using your Laughie for one minute, three times a day, should be enough for most people. "I would say do one or two weeks of using it three times a day. And once you start feeling up again and better, you can reduce that to once a day.
"The thing with the Laughie is you can use it as much or as little as you want. It's another tool that you can add to your wellbeing toolbox."
⬤ LAUGHTER YOGA
The Laughie isn't the only way to achieve the benefits of simulated laughter. In 1995, Dr Madan Kataria devised Laughter Yoga, a therapy that combines simulated laughter with yogic breathing, stretching exercises and meditation.
While the Laughie was designed to be used alone, Laughter Yoga is primarily practiced in groups - and can involve quite a lot of eye contact with other members of the group.
"There's a great beauty in getting together with people and connecting on a human level," says Aoife Nelson, who runs Laughter Yoga Dublin. "And Laughter Yoga in a group very quickly breaks down barriers between people," she says. "Everyone just meets on the same level. There's something really special and lovely about Laughter Yoga."
For many, yoga brings to mind lithe, toned bodies contorted into impossible poses. But Laughter Yoga is not like that, says Aoife, who has held classes for people of all ages and abilities. "It's accessible to everyone - and has nothing to do with yoga pants," she says. "If you can breathe and laugh, you can do laughter yoga. It's so adaptable - and that's the beauty of it."
Though Laughter Yoga is usually practiced as a group activity - and Aoife recommends that everyone should try a Laughter Yoga class - there are some exercises that can be done in the privacy of your own home.
"Place your hand on your belly and say 'ho ho ho ho ho,'" she says. "Then place your hand on your heart and say 'ha ha ha ha ha.' And then place your hand on your throat and laugh like a school child, 'hee hee hee hee hee.'
"You can do this laughing exercise by yourself in front of the mirror," says Aoife, "but it really does work well if you look into someone else's eyes.
"You can also do this exercise while you're doing everyday tasks. So, when you're emptying the dishwasher and you're putting away the cups, say 'ha ha ha ha ha.' And when you're putting away the plates, 'ho ho ho ho ho.'
"During the summer, I do my laughing exercises when I'm hanging out the washing. And every single time, it turns into real laughing."
⬤ THE SCIENCE
The much-needed hard science to support the claims being made about simulated laughter is slowly starting to appear, and scientists are starting to understand what may be behind the health benefits of laughter. For example: in 2018, researchers at the University of Auckland set out to test the theory that both simulated and natural laughter are just forms of aerobic exercise "that can stimulate the cardiovascular system."
While they found that both simulated and natural laughter created the same positive changes in cardiovascular activity as physical exercise, and that the size of these changes was directly related to the amount of laughter produced, they also found that simulated laughter - which is really just a more intense, sustained and controllable form of laughter - consistently produced a greater effect on the heart than natural laughter.
Despite the significant physical and mental benefits it can provide, most of us will struggle to make simulated laughter part of our lives. But that's alright; spontaneous laughter - as triggered by jokes, funny moments with friends and YouTube videos of cats - is a pretty good substitute.
"Laughter has definite benefits in terms of reducing stress, in terms of improving sleep, reducing depression, anxiety, reducing pain," explains Freda. "It's also been found to benefit the immune system. We know that it can improve the cardiovascular function. It also improves well-being: we just feel better.
"Laughter is a fantastic thing."
Freda plans to release a free but professionally produced Laughie video, with instructions on how to record and use a Laughie. But for now, you can watch Freda at home, laughing with her Laughie, on YouTube (youtube.com/watch/IpFjroTtSYg)
Health & Living