What did you say about laughter?
A short summary of what we covered in our Let’s Laugh Laughter workshop at the 2014 AATH conference.
Laughing and smiling are two of the 3rd best things you can do for your own health and well-being.
They share the 3rd place podium with loads of other things like:
Exercise – proven to release endorphins and make you feel good. The human body needs to move.
Healthy food – I’m not a dietician so I won’t go into specifics. There’s a wealth of information available about what foods should make up the main part of our diet, those that we should eat less of, and those that we should consider special treats.
Hydration – yes, it generally means water but if you exercise a lot you might need something more exercise specific. You body needs to be kept hydrated.
Companionship – we all need others in our lives. It’s important to have people you can share or talk about your day with. Sharing the good times helps to cement them in our memory and talking through the tough times helps us build resilience for the future.
Goals – having something to aim for, somewhere to get to, something to do that we are passionate about gives our lives direction and meaning.
Time out – having a hobby, practicing meditation, cycling, running, regular walks, anything that takes you away from your usual day, is fun, and makes you feel relaxed and fulfilled.
This list could go on and on. You know what makes you feel good. I’ll leave a bit of space here so you can add things that are important to you
Other things that I do for my own health and wellbeing
Space for you to write your own list:
So we have laughter and smiling and all those other things on the 3rd step of the health and wellbeing podium, but is the top thing, the number 1 thing we can do for our own health and wellbeing?
I know, it sounds trivial but breathing is actually really important. I highly recommend it. Breathing is a key function in the human body. Your brain knows that breathing is so important to your health and wellbeing that if you try to stop it will take over and make you breath! Our brain controls our breathing without much input from us, although, if we want to, we can regulate our own breathing pattern.
We can tell a lot about how we’re feeling by the way we’re breathing. If we’re stressed or anxious our breathing usually becomes short and shallow. If we get angry of agitated many of hold our breath. Then when we need to breath we take forceful deep breaths that most people associate with anger.
Our breathing pattern reflects our mood and emotion but did you know that you can change your mood and emotion just by changing your breathing pattern?
Many of us have heard the saying ‘Take a deep breath’. You might hear it if someone is getting anxious, stressed or angry. Taking a slow deep breath pushes our diaphragm down, floods our body with oxygen, boosts our circulation which in turn cools our brain, relaxes our body and mind and calms us down. Our posture changes when we take a deep breath and clinical tests have proven that just a few slow deep breaths will have a positive impact on the way we’re feeling.
Take a moment to take deep breath now.
- Breath in slowly
- Hold the breath for a moment
- Exhale slowly
- Hold the breath for a moment
So why does it work (the sciencey bit ):
Deep breathing relieves stress and anxiety due to its physiological effect on the nervous system. Breathing slowly and mindfully activates the hypothalamus, connected to the pituitary gland in the brain, to send out neurohormones that inhibit stress-producing hormones and trigger a relaxation response in the body. The hypothalamus links the nervous system to the endocrine system, which secretes the hormones that regulate all activities throughout the body.
Let’s take that deep breathing exercise one step further:
- Inhale slowly and deeply, filling the lungs and feeling the chest expand.
- Hold the breath for a few seconds.
- Exhale slowly, feeling the chest contract.
- Repeat the 3 steps above, this time with a smile. A great big smile that includes the muscles around your eyes.
- Repeat step 4 at least twice more.
The other breathing exercise we practiced was pandiculation. Pandiculation is, as we discussed, the act of stretching the upper limbs and torso – usually associated with a yawn.
There’s been a lot of research into why humans yawn although to date none of the researchers have come up with a definitive answer. We all know that we yawn when we’re tired or bored, when our body needs to rid itself of carbon dioxide or needs to increase the oxygen flow and for many of us yawning is contagious. If the air around us isn’t circulating or if we aren’t moving much our circulation begins to slow, the careful balance of the makeup of our blood begins to change and our brain begins to warm. When this happens our brain sends out a signal to set off a yawn to get more oxygen into the system, to get the circulation moving, to re-balance the blood and most importantly to cool itself down. The stretching that usually accompanies a yawn helps to improve the circulation, plus it feels great, and the deep slow breath we take when we yawn helps to calm our body and our mind.
Did you yawn while you were reading that last paragraph? For some people just reading about yawning can set them off, for most people seeing someone else yawn is all it takes.
The best reason researchers have come up with for why we yawn is that they believe in early humankind, before speech was developed, when facial expressions and movement were the main forms of communication the yawn was used to communicate the state of awakeness of individuals in a group allowing the group to regulate sleep patterns, which was vital for survival.
A veterinarian in one of my groups once shared that, in the canine world at least; the top dog will yawn to set the internal body clocks of the rest of the pack. He warned us that if we own a dog and we yawn in response to our dog’s yawn, our domestic ‘pack’ might just have elected a new leader and it very well might not be us. I’m not a dog owner so I can’t test his theory. He did add that if you have cats, sorry, if cats have you, he reminded us that while dogs have owners, cats have staff, the cats think they’re the boss from the outset so they really don’t care about yawning. He may or may not be right but he did make us laugh.
Sadly yawning isn’t something you can do everywhere but, if you’re somewhere when you can yawn and pandiculate without knocking things over or annoying those around you, give it a go. Stretch it out. Enjoy the moment. It might just make you feel great.
It’s well known that the facial expressions related to a range of emotions are common across all humans. Facial expressions are biological in nature, hard wired into our brain if you like. No one needs to teach them to us, we seem to automatically know what someone’s face is ‘saying’ even if we can’t see or hear what else is going on and when it comes to our friends we can usually tell when their words simply don’t match their expression or behaviour. It’s known as the empathetic response. We all use similar expressions to convey a similar feeling and we all recognise their meaning when we see others using them. It’s known that these expressions are basic communication tools for survival. If we eat something that doesn’t taste good our look of disgust warns others, we can tell an angry conversation without even hearing what’s being said and we might chose to keep our distance or go to the aid of our loved one if it looks like the anger is directed at them, if people are smiling and look happy we’re more likely to approach them and we can usually tell if a friend is upset, no matter how hard they might try to hide it.
So how does it work (the sciencey bit ):
Facial expressions and physical responses are a part of the flight/fight/flee response. This is an automatic emotional memory response which occurs in the amygdale. Rather than taking the time to send thoughts to the thinking part of the brain, the cortex, which takes time to process the situation, evaluate what is happening and decide how to handle it the flight/fight/flee response responds to the situation though the amygdale which instantly retrieves memory responses to similar situations. The reaction is immediate and automatic. Facial expressions usually appear before you actually think about them.
There is a wonderful TED Talk on posture that you might like to watch - http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are
The second best thing you can do for your own health and well-being is: Have at least one birthday every year!
There’s no research into this one. It’s just something I’ve discovered by talking with thousands of different groups over the past decade. Those who have the most birthdays really do live the longest, so, almost by default, birthdays must be good for your health and well-being!
And onto that 3rd place podium and smiling and laughter.
Like yawning, smiling and laughter are contagious. It’s known that basic human survival mechanisms (which include mood and emotion, facial and posture recognition, yawning and laughter) are contagious. As we said before, in earlier times yawning helped to set the sleep patterns of the group. Smiling and laughing build bonds between people and within groups and they communicate that the immediate environment is safe.
Let’s begin with smiling.
Just as you can pick up how your friends are feeling just by the look on their face and their posture, your brain picks up how you’re feeling by the expression on your face and your posture.
Do you remember the smiling exercise we did?
- Relax into what I call your sad back, don’t slouch, simply roll your shoulders forward and drop your chin down towards your chest.
- When you’re ready SMILE! Make sure it’s that big smile that includes the muscles around your eyes.
- Did you notice what happened to your posture? Most people straighten up, even just a bit, and when we smile we lift our heads. We don’t need to think about changing our posture, it simply happens. This exercise is fun to do in a group because you can watch how the posture of others changes.
Research shows that any change in facial expression signals our brain to release chemicals and proteins associated with that particular emotion, preparing our bodies to react in the most appropriate way. Smiling, whether real or fake, as long as it includes the muscles around the eyes can make you feel happier and when we feel happier we stand taller and are more prepared to face what’s around us.
Having said that it’s also understood that smiling while thinking negative thoughts doesn’t really have the desired effect.
If I’m feeling anxious or annoyed and I want to change my mood, I practice the mindful smile exercise:
- breath in, concentrating on the breath and not on the issue at hand,
- pause the breath and be mindful of the muscles on your face that create the smile
- breath out, being mindful of your breathing
- pause the breath
- repeat steps 1 to 5 several times
This mindful smile exercise gives me a chance to step away from the issue and gives my brain a chance to calm, and the very act of smiling and being mindful of my smile makes me feel happier.
But what if you don’t feel like smiling. Sometimes it’s the things we want the least that we need the most. If you don’t feel like smiling try this exercise:
- Take all the expression off your face, just rest those facial muscles
- Relax your shoulders and sigh
- Breath in deeply putting a smile on your face as you do
- Pause and feel the smile
- Breath out with a loud sigh, removing all the expression from your face and relaxing your shoulders.
- Pause in your expressionless state
- Repeat steps 3 to 6 several times
I have shared this exercise with hundreds of groups over almost a decade. Most people find that after just a few cycles of what I call: Sad Back, Breath in, Smile on, Sigh out, Sad Back, Breath in, Smile on, Sigh out, they just can’t seem to wipe the smile off their face. One men’s depression group got up to 17 cycles before the laughter began. That’s the record for the longest time this exercise has taken to work.
There are 2 main types of smiles.
The first is that insincere one, known in research circles as the ‘Pan-Am’ or ‘Botox’ smile. It’s what I like to call ‘the shopping centre smile’. It’s that smile that only includes the muscles around the mouth.
Sometimes when I see people using the ‘Pan-Am’ smile it makes me think of the faces of animals that are about to attack. The ‘Pan-Am’ smile isn’t picked up by the brain as a smile. It could actually make you feel anxious or stressed and it send negative signals to those around you.
The second type of smile is what is known as the Duchenne smile, named after Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne (1806 – 1875). Through a series of experiments that involved attaching electrical probes to patient’s faces Dr Duchenne discovered that when an electrical impulse caused the muscles around the eyes to contract creating the appearance of a smile the patient reported a positive change in their mood, even though they hadn’t initiated the smile themselves. He proved that it only takes the right muscles to move in a particular way for the brain to get the signal of a smile and to begin to produce the chemicals and proteins associated with happiness, and those right muscles are the ones around the mouth and the eyes.
On-going research confirms his findings. Smiling, real or fake, as long as it includes the muscles around the mouth and the eyes really can change the way we feel.
Have you heard the saying that claims ‘it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile, so why waste energy frowning?’ Anatomists will tell you that the muscular make up of the face is so complicated that they don’t really know how many muscles each expression uses, although it’s thought be around 12 for each, but it sounds good, even if it isn’t true. So go ahead, smile, it’s good for your health and who knows, with a little bit of practice it could become your default expression.
There is a brilliant TED Talk about smiling that you might like to watch - http://www.ted.com/talks/ron_gutman_the_hidden_power_of_smiling
And onto Laughter.
Do you have enough laughter in your life?
Do you know how much is enough?
Did you know that there’s a recommended minimum daily dose?
Most of us know how much exercise we should have each day. Do you remember when the research on minimum daily exercise recommendation was released? We were told we should get 30 minutes of exercise 3 days a week.
Of course as soon as we got use to 3 days a week the goal posts were moved and it became 5 days a week and once we’d come to terms with that we were told we should work out 7 days a week! Plus we were reminded that it should be 30 minutes in a row, starting at minute 1 and not stopping until minute 30, that we should be lightly puffing and gently sweating when we finish and that we should have exercised in a way that increased our heart rate. It’s making me tired just thinking about but I do know that exercise is good for our health and wellbeing, it helps to keep us fit, it produces endorphins and other chemicals which not only make us feel good but help to keep us healthy.
Dr Michael Miller of the centre for preventative cardiology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore recommends a minimum of just 15 minutes of laughter every day.
Dr Miller and his team arrived at the 15 minute recommendation after their research showed that this seemingly small amount of laughter had a proven positive effect on the health of his patients. His research showed that a daily dose of just 15 minutes of laughter improved the ability of blood vessels to expand and contract creating more efficient blood flow and reducing the risk of heart problems. His findings also confirmed earlier studies that suggested that mental stress can cause a narrowing of the vessels.
There have been many studies into the benefits of laughter:
- A team in Japan discovered that laughter lowers the blood sugar (glucose) levels in patients with type 2 diabetes.
- Dr Lee Berk and Dr Stanley Tan and their team at Loma Linda University in California discovered that a daily dose of laughter lowers bad (LDL) cholesterol and increases good (HDL) cholesterol.
- Other studies have also shown that because laughter increases circulation, it relaxes muscles, has a positive effect on the functioning of the heart, reduces blood pressure, is an effective pain reliever, increases energy levels and helps us to think more clearly and creatively.
- Laughter is also proven to increase the production of cells associated with a healthy immune system.
- It assists in the reduction of leg ulcers and skin infections such as eczema.
- And while the studies are still to be completed, laughter has shown to have a positive impact on the health and well-being of those living with environmental depression.
- Our ability to laugh also increases our ability to cope in times of stress and protects us against the detrimental effects of diseases that are related to high levels of stress.
- And, we don’t need a research study to prove that laughing makes us feel good.
If laughter is SO good for your health do you laugh enough? Remember it’s only 15 minutes a day, and unlike your 30 minutes of exercise you don’t have to complete the 15 minutes in one sitting. In fact, the researchers would prefer you didn’t. The benefits of laughter continue after you’ve stopped and researchers recommend simply laughing whenever you can, a few seconds here, a minute there, a longer time when you’re having fun with family and friends.
Often times we don’t even notice when we laugh and I ask some groups to monitor when they laugh during the day. You might like to try it. Every time you laugh, whether it’s a single ha, or a good long laugh, make a note. You could be pleasantly surprised just how much laughing you do every day.
While those who research exercise happily recommend that you should get your 30 minutes every day, regardless of how busy you are, what the weather’s like or how you’re feeling, laughter researchers recommend that you get an average of 15 minutes a day over 21 days.
Each and every emotion has its place and time in our lives and some days simply aren’t laughing days. Some days are what I call gravity days. You know how gravity pulls everything down towards the earth, some days I feel like it’s taking me with it. It’s hard to get started and when I do it’s hard to keep going. While gravity days are a part of life we do need to remember that we should only ever have 1 gravity day in a row. Yes, that’s 1 and only 1 consecutive gravity day. If you wake up on day 2 and find you’re heading into a second gravity day then you need to remember the ‘game show rule’. You need to phone (or talk with) a friend! If your issue seems overwhelming or you don’t want to share it with someone you know you might like to consider ringing one of the many help lines, your workplace might have a counselling service or you could share with your local doctor. While not every day is a laughing day, not every day should be a gravity day either.
And remember: no matter how much laughter you have in your day you can always have a little more.
Despite the assumption that we need something to laugh at or someone to laugh with, (that’s someone to laugh with – not at!) we don’t. Learning to laugh for no reason other than to practice our laughter is easy.
Let’s add a little laughter to our breathing exercise:
- Inhale slowly and deeply, filling the lungs and feeling the chest expand.
- Hold the breath for a few seconds.
- Exhale slowly, feeling the chest contract.
- Repeat the 3 steps above, this time with a smile. One that includes
- the muscles around your eyes. Be mindful of your smile.
- Repeat the first 3 steps again and this time giggle or laugh the breath out. You
- might notice that you bend forward as you laugh. Laughter contracts the
- muscles in the abdomen.
Learning to laugh for the sake of laughing, and because it’s good for our health and wellbeing is easy. As with learning to do anything, or learning do it better, it’s all about practice.
Humans are born to laugh. No one teaches us, it’s an in-build survival mechanism. Most babies start to laugh at between 6 and 11 weeks, although there is research underway that is showing that babies actually laugh inutero! They certainly smile inutero! Laughing plays a number of important roles in early human development. Both smiling and laughter create oxytocin in the brain of both the baby and the carer facilitating emotional bonding. It has also been recently discovered that oxytocin assists the body to heal itself. Laughing also boosts circulation, feeding organs and helping the brain to develop, assisting with learning. It boosts the developing immune system and helps to maintain it and helps to create a physical environment where the child will flourish.
Over the years the brain grows and develops and over time, our sense of humour and the way we react and respond to the world around us is shaped and formed both by nature and nurture. Those we live with, our family, our community and our culture combined with the biology of our own system create the people we are and as a result we all develop very different senses of humour. We all find different things funny. I might laugh at something you don’t get, you might laugh at something someone else finds confusing, and they might laugh at something others might find offensive. While we all enjoy having a sense of humour it shouldn’t be the only thing we rely on to bring out our laughter.
Barbara Fredrickson, a prominent researcher in the field of positive emotion explains the benefits of smiling, laughter and humour as the ‘Broaden and Build’ effect. Negative emotions, she says, arouse the autonomic nervous system and narrow our attention, directing us to act in very specific ways, to flee or fight, to escape or defend, (known as the Flight or Fight response). Positive emotions, those that are initiated by smiling and laughing, counter the arousal generated by the autonomic nervous system, broadening the range of behaviours and thoughts we exhibit, helping us to be more flexible, more creative and to better integrate our thoughts and actions, allowing us to give more attention to our thoughts and to the world around us. Broaden and Build is essential to effective coping.
And finally Celebration and self congratulation:
Often we seek validation that what we are doing has benefit. Most times we seek social validation – by sharing our successes or our failures with friends, family or those in our community we seek their approval or better still congratulations at our achievements or their opinion that we did the right thing or are on the right path even if things didn’t or aren’t working out or are moving slower than we had hoped.
Research shows that private validation, standing back once you have achieved something, and saying YES! I have completed that, has a positive impact on our mood and creates chemicals associated with pleasure in the brain that cause us to seek more positive outcomes.
If we go through our day completing things and moving on, what I call ‘Living in the GAP’ we can feel that we’ve achieved very little - it can be tiring. Stopping once we’ve completed something and congratulate ourselves puts what I call a ‘full stop’ on our work. It gives us time to appreciate an achievement, confirming that we might be on the right track, that, whatever it is that we want or need to complete, that we achieving our goal.
Celebration and self congratulation help us to view our day through positivity and create an atmosphere where we want to achieve more.
You might like to try the Let’s Laugh ‘Top 11 Ways To Have More Laughter In Your Life’.
- Smile more. Your facial expression affects your mood and emotion.
- Discover what makes you laugh and try to have more of it in your life.
- Start a happy conversation. Talk about the amazing and wonderful things that are a part of your day.
- Spend more time with people who make you laugh.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. Those who can laugh at themselves will never cease to be amused!
- Create a positive environment. Practice gratitude. Say thank you. Notice the surprising and amazing things that are a part of your day.
- Practice celebration and self congratulation.
- Learn from the children. They know how to have fun, join them every now and then.
- Be conscious of your laughter. When you laugh, notice it.
- Join your local laughter club, and if there isn’t one you could start your own. Let’s Laugh can help to train you as a laughter leader and to set up your local club.
- Practice, practice, practice. Practice might not make perfect but it does make things easier.
You might even like to practice your laughter exercises.
- Smile and giggle just for the fun and health of it.
- Breathe deeply, breath in, smile, breath out relax, breath in smile, giggle on the breath out.
- Take some ‘in my head time’. Think about things that make you laugh and laugh at the thought.
- Talk to those smiley fingers!
- Practice some laughter exercises. Perhaps the mobile phone laugh, a ‘ta da’ or even a YES!
Thank you for being a part of a Let’s Laugh laughter workshop. I hope you had fun and I hope you discovered a few ideas that will have you smiling and laughing more.
I’m always happy to hear from you. If you have questions, want to know more or would like to share something that made you laugh you can phone me on 0421 335 197 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
A final note. Yes, I know, there are no citations and references? I’ve not credited the researchers or cited the studies.
These notes are altered and changed to suit each and every group. They’re produced after the session or workshop as each group is unique and the program content changes on the spot to suit the participants.
Most of the research comes from a wide variety of sources and could be credited to many researchers.
The idea is to provide user friendly, easy to read notes that can be related back to our time together.
If you would like references to particular comments please ask.