Most of us have a friend who, if invited to dinner, will make us laugh so much with an unending stream of funny stories that the food will get cold and neglected. The jokes may start soon after hunger has been dulled sufficiently to slow down eating and, if the jokes are well presented, laughter will prevent many from continuing to eat. And indeed, what one remembers after this type of dining experience is not the food (regardless of how good it is) but the shared experiences of laughter.
Many people have tried to define the effects of laughing on the brain, attempted to analyze how structure of jokes activates laughter (there is a linguistic basis for this) and even have measured physiological responses to laughter. But it is not necessary to know what neurotransmitters in the brain are involved in the laughing response to know that it makes you feel better. The feeling may not last any longer than it takes to forget the punch line, but there is a sense of contentment after a good laugh, a feeling of relief because even if it is only for a few minutes, any negative emotions we are harboring seem silenced by the sounds of laughter we are making.
The idea that laughing releases tension is well understood by therapists who study the effect of laughter on behavior and mood. Moreover, even though we can laugh privately at something funny in a book or in a New Yorker cartoon, laughing is acknowledged as a way we communicate with others in the few minutes we all perceive the world of the funny story the same way. Indeed, if someone in a group mutters, “Why is that funny?” others view him or her temporarily as an outsider to a shared understanding of the story.
Laugh therapy has been used to reduce anxiety and depression among patients confronting illnesses like cancer and chronic diseases that have no apparent cure. Laughter is used as a tool to help people with social anxiety, according to Aaron O’Banion and Justin Bashore, who write about this on their website, Social Anxiety Institute.
Doctors rarely, if ever, prescribe laughter as a remedy for disease but one man, Norman Cousins, proved that it could be a powerful tool. Cousins, the editor-in-chief of the Saturday Review, developed a painful connective tissue disease with a very small chance of recovery. His own treatment plan included watching reruns of humorous television programs and movies. His book, The Anatomy of an Illness, published in l979 after he recovered from his disease, described how, “…ten minutes of belly laughter allowed him two hours of pain-free sleep.” Of course, as some critics pointed out, he may have been misdiagnosed and whatever he had could have gotten better without the laughter, but the effect of laughing was immediate and the results, no pain, easily noticed.
Inducing laughter for therapeutic reasons, such as decreasing anxiety, is not left to the telling of jokes or watching a stand-up comedian. There are therapeutic laughter meet-up groups, laughter yoga (known as Hasya yoga) and laughter clubs. The objective is put an individual through a series of breathing and moving exercises that mimic, to some extent, the body movements when one is laughing. And sometimes laughing is induced just by having two people sit, stare at one another, and then force a laugh. It works as anyone who has giggled in response to someone else giggling knows.
It seems obvious that laughing should somehow find its way into a weight-loss program, especially for those whose excessive food intake is the primary, indeed only, pleasure they have. Eating is commonly done to reduce tension and anxiety, as a pleasurable way of reducing boredom, loneliness, the tedium of work or household tasks, and as a source of comfort that never fails. If laughter can decrease the negative moods often associated with overeating, the effect may be a painless, and indeed enjoyable, way of losing weight.
Laugh It Off! Weight Loss for the Fun of It by Katie Namrevo was published 14 years ago and describes the effect of laughing on the weight loss of the author. Unfortunately, her book has not spawned the equivalent of national weight-loss laughing groups that, unlike Weight Watchers, would allow clients to tell jokes rather than sad stories about how they overate the previous week. Moreover, might laughter therapy be used to relieve the intense loneliness of a morbidly obese shut-in individual who finds pleasure only when eating? If Norman Cousins could experience a few hours of reduced physical pain, might laughing also bring about a few hours of relief from emotional pain? Consider what might happen if someone attempting to lose weight was told that a meal could be consumed only after the individual watched 10 or 15 minutes of a funny movie or video or listened to a recording of a very funny writer like David Sedaris. What if an exercise-averse individual were told that a yoga group was focusing on movements related to laughter? A weight-loss group might be more fun if the attendees laughed together instead of describing events in which they overate, or the reasons they were provoked into doing so.
All of us, regardless of our weight, probably don’t spend enough time laughing. And yet, all of us have had the experience of repeating to ourselves a joke or funny observation we may have heard recently, just because it brings a smile to our face. Doing so makes us feel good. And feeling good is an effective way to support weight loss.
“Effects of laughter therapy on anxiety, stress, depression and quality of life in cancer patients,” Demir, M. J., Cancer Sci Ther 2015 7: 272-273.