While most people enjoy a good comedy, their desire to be tickled is usually more in pursuit of a cure for boredom than any physical ailment. Yet there's a growing sentiment among some medical and psychological professionals (if not the pharmaceutical industry) that the old saying "laughter is the best medicine" may, in fact, be rooted in at least as much scientific truth as simple well-wishing.
"Research indicates that laughter reduces our perception of stressful events, promotes relaxation and lowers blood pressure," explains Dr. Carl Hale, a veteran Merrillville neuropsychologist. "Laughter seems to activate the parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system, which is the opposite of our ‘fight or flight' response to stressors. This changes our perception of a stressful situation and gives us the ability to reframe the event more positively and to face it with less anxiety."
Laughter, in other words, appears to trigger a chain reaction of psychological events that allows us to confront perceived obstacles with a greater sense of calm and happiness. Lest anyone dismiss the hard medicinal value of mere happiness, however, Dr. Hale firmly believes that most doctors would agree that a patient with a positive outlook stands a better chance of handling difficult circumstances and responding to treatment than a gloomy Gus.
"People who report a greater level of happiness are generally healthier, both physically and psychologically," he says. "They are more resilient and better able to roll with the punches, which probably strengthens their immune responses on a biochemical level and makes them less susceptible to emotional problems and physical illnesses."
When it comes to the mortar-and-pestle business of seeking out a dose of healthy laughter, some will opt for the self-medication of a classic I Love Lucy episode or a raucous David Sedaris essay. But to Tanaz Bamboat, true life-affirming laughter has less to do with comedy routines or knee-slapping jokes than it does with finding a deep inner happiness, which is why for the better part of the last decade she has practiced and proselytized a discipline called laughter yoga throughout Northwest Indiana (laughteryoga4u.com).
Essentially a casual form of lighthearted group therapy, laughter yoga encourages participants to channel the typical focal points of traditional yoga—breathing and concentration—into the act of laughter rather than physical contortion or meditation. Bamboat insists she doesn't mind the sometimes reflexive skepticism she tends to encounter from those new to the practice, because she too had her doubts in the beginning.
"When I first came to America from India almost twenty years ago, I missed my family and became depressed," she says. "I had always loved to laugh, but I lost it somehow. Then I read an article about Dr. Madan Kataria and the laughter yoga program, which seemed to bring about laughter naturally without any need for jokes or even a sense of humor. At first, it didn't work for me—it felt artificial and forced. But once the group got going, it really was contagious. It was all about breathing and getting to those deep belly laughs that just make you feel better in every way."
Bamboat has since led countless group and one-on-one classes, and has spread the word about the potential health benefits of laughter yoga to more than a hundred different groups. Her mission remains the same regardless of whom she's addressing—to get more people laughing and feeling better because of it; yoga is simply her method of choice.
"Laughter is the easiest and most economical way to promote mind-body wellness," she says. "Once you lose it, you've lost your soul."
Whether one agrees with the notion of the health benefits of laughter or not, perhaps the biggest upshot, at least to the reader of a piece on the topic such as this one, is the conspicuous lack of pages upon pages of small-print disclaimers and horrific potential side effects immediately following it. At the very least, maybe a healthy guffaw every now and then will prove to be adept at staving off terminal legalese. Dr. Hale, for his part, wouldn't mind seeing a healthy outbreak of laughter cut into his very livelihood.
"In my profession, happy patients aren't patients anymore," he says. "Once people find more happiness and satisfaction, they're out the door."