Robyn’s laughter teacher shares three simple tips to help you giggle your way to a happier state of mind
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Writer Robyn Wilder went back to school – and discovered a good old belly rumble can improve more than just your sense of humour
can’t remember the last time I had a really good laugh. You know, the kind of unbridled, cry-laughing where your knees buckle and you clutch at your friends with a stitch in your middle. My youth was full of unbalanced cackling on nights out, mid-exam sniggers and attacks of hysterical, bladder-melting giggles. But now that I’m a ‘proper’ grown-up, I don’t have the time – or inclination – to laugh. Life is all deadlines, laundry and toddler-wrangling. As a result, I’m a walking ball of stress. I’m always anxious and tired, with a low-level headache.
I know I have to fix this. No one needs to be told how good a real chuckle feels. And, in fact, laughing more could be the key to being happier, calmer – and healthier! Studies show it can help protect against heart disease, improve pain tolerance and generally foster a sense of wellbeing.
Laughter puts a spring in my step and helps me relax
‘Laughter can actually help ease stress, anxiety and depression,’ says consultant clinical psychologist Dr Edel McAndrew. ‘Hearty laughter promotes the release of happy chemicals and hormones, including serotonin, and stimulates feelings of happiness, which can help fight stress.’ Its effect on the brain is even similar to a workout in the gym, she adds. ‘It supports the immune system, and the intake of extra oxygen during hard laughter also boosts the circulatory system.’
The trouble is, I’m not someone who can just laugh on demand. So when I stumble on ‘laughter yoga’, I think it could be the answer. Developed in 1995 by Indian doctor Madan Kataria, it started as a modest affair to test the theory that laughter is the best medicine – and today, laughter therapy is used in over 100 countries. Put simply, it involves a combination of deep-breathing techniques and, erm, laughing. At nothing. No jokes, no funny cat videos, just… laughing. Advocates insist that the benefits come whether you’re cackling authentically or as directed by your instructor.
However, I’m the sort of person who turns into a wallflower in group-bonding sessions, so the last thing I want to do is stand in a room and pretend to laugh while staring into the eyes of a stranger…
So, here I am, standing in a room and pretending to laugh while staring into the eyes of a stranger. I’m having a one-on-one with Lotte Mikkelsen, my laughter yoga therapist (unitedmind.co.uk), and I’m beyond uncomfortable. My palms are sweaty, my neck and shoulders seem fused together at right angles and my laugh is convincing no one. ‘Har-har,’ I mumble through my stiff upper lip, like a butler pretending to be a pirate.
How I wish I could laugh like Lotte. Streams of bubbly giggles decorate her speech, even in everyday conversation, and her full laughter comes easily, in big, infectious gusts. I, meanwhile, am baring my teeth in a rictus grin. As we pretend to hoot at each other (‘louder, bigger, with a dropped jaw!’ Lotte instructs), my mind is awash with worried thoughts. Am I staring too much? What if I’m no good at this?
‘Starting out can be very uncomfortable,’ Lotte admits. ‘But the more you practise, the easier it gets. Think of laughter as breath. When you laugh socially, you only do it for three to five minutes, but to get the physiological benefits you need to laugh for a full 10 minutes, which is why it’s great to do it ourselves in therapy.’
Observing that I’m breathing from my chest and not my tummy (‘classic stress breathing’), Lotte tells me to inhale deeply into my diaphragm, then chant ‘hoo-hoo, ha-ha-ha’ over and over while clapping. At first, this feels like the territorial grunting of a gorilla. Then, almost magically, my head clears and my posture improves. ‘Use this tool whenever you feel anxiety building,’ she advises.
There’s no doubt that cackling at nothing for a few minutes a day is a rather odd thing to do
Now that I’m warmed up, it feels less unnatural to join in with Lotte’s hearty chuckles. And after a few minutes… it becomes funny. As Lotte says, something ‘clicks’ (and it’s not my jaw). We have a connection. Wordless mirth is passing between us. I’m laughing at Lotte’s laughter and she’s laughing at mine.
We try different sounds – ho-ho, ha-ha, hoo-hoo – which strikes me as hilarious. My fake laughter morphs into genuine giggles, and when Lotte adds some funky dance moves, I’m lost. I’m weeping, practically banging my fist on the floor. It feels very familiar and genuine. It’s like best-friend laughing, when you don’t know what’s causing it, but everything – your knees, the sky, a potato – sets you off.
At the end of the session, my insides feel strangely rinsed clean, and it’s as though I’ve taken my first full breath for years. I’m weary and slightly light-headed, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I felt this good. It’s as if I’ve had the best gym workout of my life – and I’m not even wearing Lycra.
I promise Lotte that I’ll practise laughing at nothing on a daily basis, but the next day dawns grey and busy, with a teething toddler and only three hours’ sleep. Yet when I manage to grab 10 minutes of laugh-time in the shower, it comes easily. With hot water spraying on my head and my armpits full of shower gel, I just throw back my head and start laughing. At nothing. Within minutes, I’m giggling helplessly at my shampoo bottle. My husband smiles at me quizzically when I emerge. ‘What was so funny?’ he asks, laughing a little himself, as though in anticipation of the joke I’m about to tell. ‘Nothing!’ I trill, and we share a confused but warm giggle that leaves us both smiling as we pass each other on the stairs.
I grow used to the pattern of the exercise: awkwardness, feeling ridiculous, doubt, carrying on laughing regardless, and then the emergence of genuine laughter. There’s no denying that cackling at nothing for several minutes a day is an odd thing to do – my neighbours have started giving me strange looks – but the benefits keep coming. Laughter puts a spring in my step and helps me relax. I no longer need two-hourly shots of caffeine, because I’m buoyed by good humour. An altercation with a grumpy woman in a shop strikes me as funny, rather than stressful. And when my son’s childcare falls through on a busy work day, rather than fretting, I drop everything and just enjoy a rare day off in the park with him.
What surprises me is how easy it is to laugh now. Nothing much has changed – I still have deadlines, too much laundry and a child who likes to nosedive off the sofa when I’m not looking. But smiles are a breath away. My son is a big fan of Smiley Mummy; we spend evenings chasing each other around the house, giggling. And from my new, more relaxed perspective, it’s easier for me to see when my husband is feeling stressed. A lot of the time, I’m able to bounce him out of it with humour.
Having a lighter outlook also means I’m not stressing about milestones so much, and remembering the importance of taking care of me. So I’m trying to drink more water, claw back some downtime and generally improve my work-life balance.
Laughter therapy isn’t, as I worried, a series of pointless trust exercises, but a practical way to switch on your brain’s happy chemicals. I’m realising just how important it is to laugh, whether voluntarily or because something is funny. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bunch of cat videos to watch – doctor’s orders.
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Photography Matthew Walder, Getty Images Still-life photography Pixeleyes