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Laughing Together: A Pandemic Mood-Booster

Sometimes a hearty laugh is best of all.

Key points

  • Laughter is a well-known antidote to stress, regardless of whether the stress is caused by personal events or a national crisis.
  • There is substantial evidence that laughter is therapeutically helpful as an adjunct to talk and pharmacological therapies.
  • One study showed that laugh yoga had a significant impact on reducing depression and anxiety in a group of recently retired women.

Several days ago, we were in a large performance venue enjoying the first moments of a comedy/musical event. I heard a sound from the person sitting next to me that I had not heard for many months: laughter. A similar sound popped up all around me, and soon almost everyone in the audience was chuckling or laughing out loud. The laughter continued off and on throughout the performance and left its mark in the smiles that accompanied the chit-chat of the audience as they left. I overheard someone say that the performance did more for her mood than Prozac.

Although laughter is rarely the first prescription offered to those experiencing depression, laughter is a well-known antidote to stress, regardless of whether the stress is caused by personal events or, as in the case of the pandemic, a national crisis. Moreover, there is substantial evidence that laughter is therapeutically helpful as an adjunct to the more conventional talk and pharmacological therapies for mental disorders. As the author points out, “Laughter therapy is a non-invasive and non-pharmacological alternative treatment for stress and depression.” The only side effects that might be associated with laughing are an aching side from, “... laughing too much.”

Many centuries prior to the acceptance by the medical community of humor as a therapeutic method for the treatment of mental illness, sages and scholars were writing about its positive benefits. Gelkopf points out in his review that the Proverbs (17:22) claimed, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine,” and Darwin, centuries later, postulated that laughter had an important evolutionary function by improving the cohesiveness of a community, thus giving it an advantage in survival. Truly, for a few seconds after the conclusion of the performance, it felt as if the audience was drawn together by the post-pandemic sense of sharing something pleasurable as a community.

Moreover, laughter is so sufficiently recognized as a mode of therapy for those with even serious mental illness (such as schizophrenia) that now psychologists are being trained in laugh therapy. Such therapy uses humor, often in a group setting, and the laugher may be induced with certain types of exercises, comedy movies, books, games, puzzles, and even a type of yoga. And its efficacy has been shown in placebo-controlled studies. In one such study, elderly individuals living in a communal residence participated in laugh therapy four times a week for one month and their moods, quality of sleep, and insomnia were compared to a similar number of control individuals who did not receive this form of psychological intervention. There was a significant improvement in depression, decreased insomnia, and better quality of sleep among those in the laughter therapy group.

Laugh yoga, one of the types of laughter therapy, had a significant impact on reducing depression and anxiety in a group of recently retired women. Laughter or laughing yoga was developed in India by a physician, Madan Kataria, in 1995. It consists of movements and breathing exercises that induce spontaneous laugher. Women who participated in the twice-weekly intervention showed significant declines in measures of depression and anxiety compared to a control group; the improvement was seen as soon as a month after treatment began.

In an online column he wrote in February 2021, John Tregoning discussed the function of what he calls “gallows humour,” that is, the humor that appears during personal or communal catastrophes. He points out that in situations such as the pandemic when everything is so serious and grim, humor relieves us of our pessimism and dark moods. Clearly this is what the comedy performance did for the audience, and what a seemingly unstoppable number of email jokes seem to do for a few friends of mine. Whenever I visited a close friend who had ALS, I would try to tell her a funny story or repeat a joke I had heard or read. She never lost her ability to laugh, and some of my fondest memories are of us chuckling over a joke.

Antidepressant medications have many side effects, may take weeks before their effects on mood disturbances are experienced, and may cause weight gain. Perhaps therapists should consider starting a patient on laugh therapy first, or along with, medication and talk therapy. There are no side effects.

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