We’ve all heard the saying that “laughter is the best medicine.” But is it really that simple? Can a certain amount of laughter be the cure-all for a range of modern-day psychological and emotional ailments, including loneliness and depression? What if you’re not in the mood for laughing? Or perhaps you don’t think you’re especially funny, and your nearest and dearest aren’t exactly a bag of laughs either. How then can you get your daily dose or laughter and tap into this foundation of joy?
It is a question I’ve dedicated decades to addressing, and my latest book “The Laughter Effect” details how. Somewhat surprisingly, it is not dependent on a joke or a funny situation which is good news if you’re hesitant about channelling your inner comedian. Rather, it’s a holistic humour – and non-humour-based skill set that doesn’t leave feeling upbeat or enlivened to chance; it’s an intentional state that when practiced regularly can become lasting levity. It is a body–mind philosophy and practice based on science—with fundamentals dating to biblical times and ancient civilisations—as was discussed in my previous JWOW article.
I say body-mind, as this philosophy that I have encapsulated as “the laughter effect”, draws on the ancient wisdom that motion creates emotion. It doesn’t depend on being in good cheer or fun company for laughter or other feel-good emotions to flow. Instead, you can choose to model the feel-good state first, perhaps by placing a smile on your face, embodying gratitude, or choosing to laugh on the outside, rather than the inside. So, even if you’re not feeling too flash at the time, our mind then follows. Whether intentional (by choice) or spontaneous (natural occurrence), a “DOSE” of positive wellbeing is stimulated: dopamine, our brain’s reward centre; oxytocin, endearingly known as the molecule of love; serotonin, our body’s antidepressant; and endorphins, our happy hormones. In so doing, countering stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin.
Like all big ideas, “the laughter effect” began as a seed. Decades ago, when following many years living with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), I developed a keen interest in wellbeing and decided to return to post-graduate studies in health promotion. However, to meet postgraduate university requirements, I needed some experience in the field. As luck would have it, a World Health Organisation Conference on Health Promotion was being hosted in Melbourne at the time; I applied and was accepted as a rapporteur contributing to the daily session wrap up. Amid the many “serious” sessions, one stood out to me—Laughter Yoga. This I had to report on.
Seasoned facilitator, Mt Scopus graduate, Phillipa Challis outlined the fundamentals of Laughter Yoga, before inviting the audience to partake in this surprisingly novel practice. A formula of simulated laughter exercises, deep breathing and clapping to the tune of ho, ho, ha, ha, ha. As I laughed along with the other participants, I immediately felt the uplifting energy and physical and emotional transformation. It was one of the most enlivening experiences of my life. In the twenty long years I had suffered from CFS, I had consulted a multitude of medical specialists and complementary health practitioners, yet the health bounce I received from Laughter Yoga was more immediate and impactful than anything else I’d tried. I knew I had stumbled upon my destiny.
Not long after, I trained as a Laughter Yoga leader. I became an expert extolling laughter’s virtue to anyone who’d listen. That was until a distinctly un-funny time in my life—a bowel cancer diagnosis at age forty-two. Despite there being nothing humorous about cancer, I knew deep within that laughter was inextricably bound to my experience. The moment had arrived to practice what I preached. I just needed time (and a couple of major operations) to connect the dots.
The first nudge was the timing of a corporate Laughter Yoga lingerie party, where I was invited to be the facilitator. But four days before major bowel surgery, the last place I wanted to be was surrounded by twenty or so excitable women fussing over fancy negligees. I autopiloted through the health benefits of laughter before facilitating the active laughter session. Within moments I felt lighter and brighter, and by the end, almost weightless. The endorphins (our body’s internal source of morphine) kicked in and a surge of excitement for life passed through me. It was the first time I acknowledged that I had needed this remedy more than the group I was facilitating needed it. Having literally laughed much of my stress away, I was psychologically more prepared and stronger for the five plus hour surgery awaiting me.
I decided I’d turn theory into practice. To turbocharge my wellbeing, I wouldn’t wait until I was in the mood for laughing. In the aftermath of my surgery, I’d instigate the laughs. But little did I know! For weeks after my operation, along with 30 centimetres of my bowel, the ability to laugh was taken away from me. Delicate breaths were challenging enough. This thing I’d taken for granted my whole life had been stolen from me.
Post-op, my body felt like it had collided with a semitrailer. Feeling glum, I needed a large dose of positivity—along with another shot of morphine. As if magnetised, my hand was drawn to the pull of a nearby pencil and large white paper placemat lining my untouched breakfast tray. I began listing everything I was grateful for in my current situation, from the importance of slowing down—even if it had been enforced—to my body’s miraculous capacity to heal. Overwhelmed by feelings of profound gratitude, for being alive, I was compelled to keep writing.
It wasn’t long before a beaming smile lightened my face and mood. It felt like every cell, every tissue, every muscle was smiling. From darkness came light, and grief for what I’d lost was transformed into gratitude. I had totally forgotten about my pain. When the nurse came in to administer my morphine and saw me seated upright, serenely smiling, she boomeranged out of my room believing she had wandered into the wrong one. My body’s natural morphine supply had kicked in. That was my ‘aha’ moment. I was embodying the Laughter Effect.
That’s when my exploration of the Laughter Effect expanded beyond physical laughter. I didn’t simply want to wait to feel good, instead I sought ways to actively intensify these feelings to enhance my healing and wellbeing. To embody positivity, whether through wholehearted smiling, gratitude or priming my mind to scan for possibilities, not problems, assisted by positive journaling, where I could reframe grievances with gratitude or levity, or amplify “micro-moments”—as coined by Professor of Positive Psychology Barbara Fredrickson—of joy in my day.
Since then, through academic research I’ve conducted into laughter therapy and by delivering countless individual and group laughter sessions for wellness programs—from aged care to corporate and government—no matter the cohort or demographic, I have marvelled at how micro-intentional acts of positivity enhance psychological resilience, sociability and positive wellbeing. Like any muscle building exercise creating neural pathways toward meeting life’s stresses with more levity takes time. However, with attention, intention and repetition (AIR), we can change our inner landscape. By integrating small yet significant practices throughout our day. Adding a smiling dimension to meditation, taking a challenging situation and journaling through the lens of gratitude or love, finding and sharing the funny to fine tune our humour sense, or growing goodness in our day through an embodied gratitude practice. Or on a rough day turning up the comedy and down the news, and if you’re game, partaking in an online or virtual Laughter Yoga session. The choice is ours. To remain passive to whatever is going on around us, even when it may not serve us well, or choose to take charge of our story. It’s not about thinking positive. Positivity is a verb – an action word.
It was the sum of my personal and professional experiences, together with research I’d garnered over many years that inspired me to write my second book. So this new dimension of self-care could be experienced by a wider audience. My timing was perfect. The publishing deal sealed before the pandemic began. I had a pandemic project at a time when joy, positivity and laughter were largely short on global supply. Like any author, I’d hope its messages would resonate with a wider audience and resonate they will. Not just in the antipodes, but to many corners of the world. The last in the line-up of international publishing deals, a Saudi Arabian publishing house that will be translating it into Arabic. Ros (female) Ben-Moshe (Hebrew) into Arabic. Also, a Russian publishing house has acquired the rights, however with their bank accounts frozen, it will need to wait for peace of some kind with Ukraine. That’s the power of laughter, it connects and unites. With one less division in the world, the world seems a more friendly place.
Whilst the laughter effect might not solve all the ills of our global world, it is a fundamental attribute of human “thrival”. Boosting joy and creating an impermeable shield of resilience to life’s challenges; to prime your “feeling” body and “thinking” mind toward optimal mental health and wellbeing. Enhancing resilience to stress and enabling you to bounce forward from adversity with humour, levity, and grace. To find and celebrate the humour in our lives and discover the pathway to a laughter mindset as the foundation for joy and wellbeing. It’s time to ripple out the laughter effect far and wide.
Ros’s first book was “Laughing at cancer – How to Heal with Love, Laughter and Mindfulness”.