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How to laugh your way to better well-being
Laughter is one of those behaviours that often gets overlooked in organisations. Nice when it happens but we don’t want to much of it when we are working. A study by researcher Anna Hatchard has looked at the impact of laughter on well-being, particularly stress, burnout and mental health.
In this podcast David interviews Anna and they explore the affect laughter and laughter yoga has on us and how to use it to boost our well-being.
Anna is a researcher and founder of the Laughter Lab:
Podcast – Laughter for well-being
– Anyway, welcome back. Today, we welcome Anna Hatchard. Anna’s recently published a research paper entitled “No Laughing Matter.” A qualitative study on the impact of laughter yoga suggests stress inoculation in the “European Journal of Applied Positive Psychology.” Now, Anna is one of our members and runs her laughter yoga workshops. So welcome, Anna. Just before we start, can you just tell us something about yourself, your background, and what kind of led up to this study. which is kind of unique as far as I’m aware?
– Yeah, well, thank you very much, David. It’s such a pleasure to be here, and thank you very much for the invitation to share my work with you and your listeners. So after 30 years of working in neurological rehabilitation, I undertook a master’s in applied positive psychology in 2017, because I was really interested in discovering more about motivation and what it is that makes people feel happy and good about their lives. And having spent a working life with people living with neurological difficulties as result of strokes and head injuries and Parkinson’s disease, et cetera, I had a wealth of experience of being with people who didn’t have a lot to laugh about, but laugh we did, and using humor was absolutely fundamental to my work. And I felt that if I had a session with somebody, and we hadn’t shared a laugh, then we hadn’t created that basic human connection, which comes with laughing together. And when I started my studies, I asked one of my physiotherapy colleagues, ’cause we had to identify our own signature strengths, and so I did a bit of a poll, and I asked this particular woman, and she said, “Well, of course, “your signature strength is humor, “but that’s not serious, is it?” And actually, it really is serious. And I think it’s interesting how it’s suddenly become quite topical and interesting during the last year of lockdown. But anyway, so one of our lecturers on the course had written a book about laughter, and she ran a monthly laughter club. And there was something quite serene about her, which made me want to learn more. So I went to train as a laughter leader with her, and I decided then to do the study of the experiences and perceptions of the laughter club members for my dissertation as part of my master’s.
– Wow, yeah, impressed. I just love this idea of a laughter leader kind of as just one of the things looking at at the moment within the membership is just all of the leadership styles, and we’re up to about 50 at the moment, different ones. And I’m just starting to ponder on whether this is a new style. And actually when you think about it, what that would do within organizations… Yeah, we need to think about that like that.
– So, interestingly, talking about leadership and things, there’s a brand new book out this year by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas. I hope I pronounced those correctly, but they’re lecturers at Stanford, and they actually have a module called “Humor Serious” they teach at the Business School at Stanford, and it has the same amount of credits as management accounting. So people are really beginning to understand that humor is serious in business and we need more of it.
– Oh yes, definitely. I’m fascinated by the book. So afterwards, if you let me have the details of the book, and, in fact, we’ll probably make it book of the month club within the year within the membership. That’s brilliant. Thanks, Anna. I think, so for most people, if not everyone, laughter’s clearly an enjoyable activity. Most people, I suspect, like listening to a good comedy or a comic. And if you don’t mind the pun, it’s a bit of a funny subject for research. Maybe if you could take us on a little trip through what some of the previous research around laughter has found, that would be really useful.
– Yes, and I think I agree with you, David. It’s a bit like my father would say, “Is it funny ha ha or funny peculiar?” Certainly laughter as the research topic is rather peculiar. Laughter’s not easy to study. When the leading laughter researcher, Robert Provine, tried to study it, it would immediately disappear. And he came up with this idea of what he called sidewalk neuroscience. So what that involved was getting a lot of his students to go out and observe laughter occurring under natural circumstances. And what they found was that laughter occurred much more in groups of friends than it did amongst strangers. And it was 30 times more likely to occur in groups of people than it is when you’re on your own.
– That’s interesting, isn’t it? There’s something about the connection being there first?
– I wouldn’t say that. I think laughter is a evolutionary play signal. Laughter evolved, they think, to allow us to cooperate in larger groups. So it started with almost an all clear I’m open to play signal amongst primates. In humans, of course, it’s a universal human language, and there are many types of laughter. It’s not always benign, but in terms of the evolutionary sort of signal, it is an openness. It’s a social signal, a bonding, a social emotion, laughter.
– Yeah. and it’s certainly a signal that’s very different from a lot of the serious signals that are kind of fight or flight type signals, we’re in trouble, or we need to do these kinds of things. And certainly I’ve noticed over the years. and it’s one of the things that we talk about when we were teaching the lecture is about kind of just being yourself and relaxing is that your own natural sense of humor comes out when you’re more relaxed. When you’re uptight, all of that kind of disappears. So, do you think it matters how the laughter starts? I mean, there’s kind of a difference between laughing at something you find genuinely funny, laughing out of shock of phenomenon I’ve seen quite a lot of times, particularly when I was a police officer, or laughing just because other people are.
– Yeah, sure. Well, it doesn’t really matter how laughter’s produced in terms of my study in terms of laughter yoga and the effect that we found. There are all manner of different prompts for laughter. So laughter is a motive behavior. It’s an outcome, which is usually the result of humor, but humor involves a complex cognitive appraisal of any situation. It’s deeply contextual and individual. So it’s not so much about the cause of laughter that matters. It’s the laughter which produces a contagion effect. People just simply don’t need to know why somebody’s lost in laughter to want to join in. So we’re neurobiologically hardwired to want to join in. So, generating laughter through humor has all sorts of challenges as any a stand-up comedian will tell you. So through laughter produced by exercises, we can jump start the process and have all the physical and psychological benefits of laughter.
– Yeah. Before COVID I was in Covent Garden, and you know how they’ve got the the people who do their things in Covent Garden, juggling or whatever it happens to be, ’cause usually they get the crowd to start cheering before they’ve actually done anything. One of them had actually got the crowd to start laughing before he’d done anything. And I noticed that had quite an effect actually on what then happened in terms of audience response to what he was doing.
– Absolutely, I mean, that’s the priming effect, and that’s the classic thing for laughter tracks at the back of episodes of “Friends” I’ve noted. It tells you when to laugh, but it also primes you to laugh more.
– Yes, the canned laughter thing, and it certainly works. So, just before I come to your study, can you explain a little bit about laughter yoga, what it is, and how it works?
– Absolutely. So laughter yoga was developed in 1995 by a medical doctor in India. And what they did was he decided that laughter was very good for you. It was a good vehicle for complete health. So, knowing this, he decided to meet in the park in the morning with four friends, and they started to tell jokes. But very quickly, the jokes became unfunny, and, in fact, they became rude and even offensive. And he decided that they had to take the humor out. So he devised laughter exercises, which produced laughter for no reason at all just for the fun of it. And he combined that with deep yogic breathing, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system and calms us down, because his wife is actually a yoga teacher. So it was that combination of laughter exercises and deep yogic breathing. And you don’t need any equipment. You don’t need any special clothes. You don’t need experience. All you need is a willingness to join in.
– Sounds wonderful. Brilliant. Yes, anyway, loads of stories about laughter. I’ve experienced it certainly in the police and things as bonding exercises and kind of informal bonding exercise where either joke telling kind of goes around the vehicle or whatever it was to be, and people certainly feel a lot closer as a result. Okay, can we just have a look at your study then? Can you just give us a little brief overview of what you were looking at, ’cause you had a number of themes of this study, and kind of what were you up to, I suppose.
– Okay, thank you. So for my study, I interviewed nine members of the laughter club, and they told me of their improved mood, their stress release during the sessions, and the mindfulness that they experienced. And knowing how keen you are on paradoxes, David, but we just discussed that paradoxical mindfulness in a way, because in laughter yoga, it’s imperative that you join in. So you have to suspend judgment and actually actively participate. But you also have to accept the situation and be passive to allow the laughter to do what people call its good work. So, they appreciated also the social aspects of laughing together, but, again, there was a paradox there, because they talked about their laughter friends who were outside their normal friendship group. So, my take on that was that they valued experientially the similar others, so people who got the experience, but they also valued that dissociation from their normal life, which was very important to them. So, they also said that the laughter primed them to feel more sociable, which I thought was interesting. So, they said they didn’t feel like socializing before the session, but after the session when they had their cup of tea, they really felt that they wanted to join in. So that was interesting. Many people said that their perspectives on life had changed and they no longer took things so seriously, and they didn’t sweat the small stuff. And people felt that the laughter yoga was fun and they appreciated its playful aspect. And some said that fun was not a feature of their daily lives. So, a cascade of themes was identified, but what’s important is that they all related to wellbeing, and laughter provided a quick and accessible inoculation against the stresses of life. And then knew laughter didn’t take away the difficulties, but it gave them a tool to cope better. And also the physical benefits were reported were improvements in breathing and walking, but, interestingly, also a determination to get fitter, which they attributed to laughter yoga. So, psychologically as well, the laughter yoga members, they told me that they got a massive buzz, and some of them said that it lasted beyond the session. And one person even described it as it was rather like a month-long glass of wine. But, of course, we need to drink responsibly.
– But laugh irresponsibly. That is fascinating. I wonder, in fact, I’m sending it out a little bit later on today in the review, there’s one of the papers we’ve been doing a briefing around is around purpose. And most of the papers that I see looking at purpose, life purpose, people’s sense of purpose, they’re doing it in the direction of what are the benefits of having a sense of purpose. This study turned it around and had a look at what were the predictors of people having a sense of purpose. And what was interesting was all of the things that you were talking about were the kinds of things that predicted whether an individual was likely to have a sense of purpose or not. They didn’t mention laughter or humor, which is interesting, and it may be one of the factors that they just didn’t look at, and, in fact, I didn’t see it on any of the factorial lists. It’s kinda making me think about two things, I think, at the same time, the links between, given what you’ve found about people wanting to do more exercise, being more pro-social and a whole series of other things. It kind of makes you wonder whether how that’s tied into purpose, but also whether, and I can just imagine a lot of people in organizations will be screaming at this idea, but that meetings start with laughter yoga. What I’d be interested in is what impact that would have on the meetings, their sense of commitment to the organization and a whole series of other factors that we look at pretty regularly. I don’t know, what are your thoughts?
– Well, I think there has been some work on starting meetings with an appreciation with gratitude, which is another positive emotion. And after, produced is a result of positive emotions, which are joy and amusement. But I know that there’s been work done on starting meetings with a bit like their sort of appreciative inquiry, but what’s going well, what’s good, trying to introduce some positive emotions first. But absolutely fascinating topic for research and hopefully it will be on the long list of future research topics.
– Yeah, fascinating. Yeah, I’d love to see some of that. You can kind of guess what might happen. Yeah, I’d love to see an organization try it. Okay, let’s just explore a little bit more about how laughter is important for connectedness and how this relates to kind of laughter, fun, letting go, et cetera. And just what are the connections between these and why are they important for us as humans?
– Well, I don’t think important is the word. I think they’re absolutely essential, David. And I think if a pandemic has shown us anything, it is the absolute inherent value of social connection. Humans are mammals, and mammals are social animals, and we are neurobiologically hardwired for connectivity. And shared laughter has been shown not only to build better quality relationships, but also reflect better quality relationships. And, in fact, in the dating world, there was a study done, and it does seem to be that a major factor in finding a mate is sharing a laugh. So one study found that the amount of shared laughter on the first date was a good predictor of an ongoing relationship.
– Oh, that’s interesting. I saw there was a study years ago. You’ve just reminded me of a study years ago about they had something about a laughter to fight quotient in relationships, and that they’d found some kind of… It’s a long time ago since I read this. If the relationship stood a chance of lasting a long time, the laughter ratio had to be, I can’t remember what the proportions were, significantly higher than the fight ratio.
– Yeah, I think Gottman did a lot of work in his relationship lab about that. Yeah, fascinating.
– It is. Yeah, really fascinating. In the study, you talk about kind of three outcomes, three major outcomes, positive emotions from laughter, growth, and advocacy. Can you explain a little bit about what these means and how laughter impacts these?
– Yeah, so positive emotions, well, they’ve only recently been the subject of scientific study and only recently has evidence evolved, emerged rather, linking positive emotions, which are reflected in laughter to both physical and mental health. And Barbara Fredrickson, who’s a pioneer in this area, developed the theory of broaden-and-build. And she identified that the experience of positive emotions such as joy and amusement, not only broadens the outlook of the person experiencing them at that time, but also experiencing positive emotions over time, builds resources and resilience for the future. And that is exactly what my participants in the study told me. They felt better in the sessions and built resources that they used in all other areas of their lives. And positive emotions have been linked to improve cardiovascular and immune health, as well as improve mental health. They buffer stress. They bolster our resources for dealing with life, and they build resistance for future health.
– So some of the research that I’ve done around uncertainty and how emergency teams deal with tough situations, and some of the work that we did after the Southeast Asia tsunami, what we found was that some of the teams that did better long-term in terms of their mental health, the people who are less likely to go down with PTSD later on, because it was horrendous situation for a lot of emergency teams, what we call positive rumination and negative rumination, there was a very strong correlation between the team leaders being positive in those situations and thinking positive thoughts about what they were going to do rather than ruminating on the negative aspects of it, and that this had a contagion or a knock-on impact into the teams themselves.
– Sure. I mean, there’s a lot of work around that and, for instance, has been in a slightly different vein. There’s been work done on people six to 12 months post bereavement or when they’ve lost a partner. What they found is people who use a lot of smiling and laughing behavior suffer less with depression than those who don’t.
– Oh, that is interesting. One of the outcomes you were talking about, the last one, about advocacy, what do you actually mean by that?
– Okay, so yeah, advocacy. Well, we missed out growth. Should we go back?
– Oh, yes. Let’s go back to growth.
– I’m paying attention to you, David.
– [David] Yeah, well done.
– The growth aspect comes from connecting inwards with yourself and also outwards with others. And laughter is unique in that, in that sense. And you talked about negative rumination, and several people talk to me about it throws out negative thoughts. It’s absolutely impossible to be stressed or anxious when you’re laughing. It breaks the cycle. It’s an absolutely fantastic circuit breaker of rumination. Anyway, and laughter yoga, I can see you thinking there, is a way of metabolizing fun and joie de vivre. So it offers you an opportunity to let go of yourself in order to be open to grow. So it’s about what George Baylor would have described as generativity, if you like. So in order to be generative, you have to be open to growth, but you can carry on growing until you die. I mean, there’s no limit on growth. It’s just it’s a mindset, if you like. It’s an open, generative mindset that allows the growth. And I certainly found that people reported to me that attending laughter yoga just once a month for one hour had changed their whole mindset on life. As I said, it lightened their outlook and brightened their outlook on life, which was extraordinary. So people reported self-confidence, for instance, singing in a choir. They joined a choir, but not only had they joined the choir, but they performed on stage with a choir, which was something they’d never thought they could have done before they’d taken up laughter yoga. So, that was interesting. And the advocacy piece is that there was a thread throughout my work of all the stories that I listened to told of a journey from skeptic about laughter yoga. Initially, they thought it was strange. And indeed, it is strange to most people, so they had to allow themselves to let go, and then they became a convert to laughter yoga. And, in fact, they not only became a convert, but they advocated. So, for instance, one of my study members started a laughter club of her own. And another one said she would have started one if she had been younger. But people identified their colleagues, friends, and family that they wanted to benefit as they had, and they really wanted other people to feel the benefits that they had. And I think that fits in well with the psychological theory of self-determination in the relatedness piece, and I think it also fits in. It’s the appreciation, really, that we’re all human and we desire to spread the good word. And laughter yoga is, in itself, inherently good. It links back to the original founder, Dr. Kataria, who wanted laughter yoga to be a vehicle for physical health, psychological health, but also spiritual health. And so what I found in my research was that the laughter club members were wanting to pay it forward. They were almost wanting to spread the word for the greater good.
– That’s very pro-social. That’s fascinating. There’s all sorts of things firing off as a result of all of that. Yeah, I think there’s something that… I’ve done a lot of work in the emotional regulation space, and one of the things that came out of a lot of that research and a lot of the work is that the switch that people make when they engage in these processes is a switch from focus on the internal like what I’m feeling, how I’m being affected by things, into the focus on the external, and that people tend to be happier anyway when they’re outside of themselves. And it seems that laughter does that, because you’re focusing on what’s going on out here. It’s like humor and things where the people think about jokes. So that’s one kind of aspect. And then there’s another concept that you’ve kind of touched on here, which I think’s kind of important to all of this and what you were saying about kind of the neurology of connectedness, I suppose, in terms of storytelling. And so, one of the things that we know from a lot of research is that our brains are pre-programmed for stories. They go in a lot easier. We remember them a lot easier. And in fact, it’s no mistake that the biggest industry on this earth is the storytelling industry. And I just wonder what the connections are, if any, between stories and laughter. And I don’t know, what do you think? They may not be. Anything that comes to mind?
– Well, I think, certainly in my study, it gave the participants the opportunity to tell their own story. And I identified this, what I call the laughter yoga journey. And that spoke very strongly to me about a process of change and growth and broadening and building as we talked about. And I think your idea of broadening outlook and having more connections, so it’s almost about stories attached very much on the emotional level. And I think, in terms of laughter, it’s about finding an emotional balance, but people actually talk, for instance, about crying sometimes in the session, but they found they felt that that was good, it was a stress release. So it was a good sign, not a bad sign. It was just a sign that they were letting themselves, allowing themselves to benefit from, if you like, the emotional seesaw that laughter gives you. So instead of just staying in your comfort zone all the time, and that’s the thing I think about the growth, we all tend to stay in our comfort zones and work has become such a serious place. The people I was talking about earlier on who wrote the book on humor seriously, they talk about the humor cliff about people falling off the cliff, age 23. We laugh a lot when we’re children. In fact, the average four year old, they say, laughs about 300 times a day, I think it is. But it takes an average 40 year old something like two and a half months to laugh the same amount, which is kind of sad, really. It’s sort of a frightening statistic, and you think that’s just weird, but anyway. So I think the question is, in a way, when laughter is such an important social connector, why is it? And I’ve been thinking in preparation for this interview about masks and smiling and thinking, how did they affect, in the pandemic world and post-pandemic world, when we’re gonna have to continue wearing masks for some time. I think that’s a fascinating study as well. How much do we actually smile behind our mask? And what effect does that have in terms of shared laughter?
– That’s fascinating. The reason I find it fascinating is the links here with playfulness and creativity. So we see almost exactly the same kinds of figures in terms of creativity. So there’s a whole series of creativity and innovation skills at a personal level. And, largely, most of them equate four year olds, five year olds, six year olds as creative geniuses. By the time we get to our 20s, almost 23, that kind of area, the vast majority of the population are no longer described in those, in fact, less than creative. And some of the connections that they’ve placed, particularly in the innovation and creativity worlds, is around this idea of playfulness. And it’s sounding like laughter is kind of a key component of that, because I think you need that humor and that lightheartedness to be able to explore things and play with new ideas and not be frightened that you’re making a mistake. And I think that’s really interesting.
– Yeah, two things. I think there’s good evidence that experiencing positive emotions does broaden our outlook and make us come up with more creative ideas. They did work on this. They actually induced positive emotions and got people to write down how many ideas they had. And they showed that if you experience positive emotions, you have more ideas. And I think the other thing is that Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters said that he doesn’t go onto stage until they’ve had a really good belly laugh backstage. He waits for that moment. And at that moment, he knows they’re ready to go out and perform.
– Fantastic. Oh, that’s interesting, isn’t it? Okay, brilliant. Anyway, back of the study. So what were your main findings, Anna?
– So my main findings were that a small dose of laughter yoga, one hour, once a month, had a powerful effect on my study participants and gave them a valued coping strategy. It’s a no tech reset button. And one participant, Louise, told me it throws out the negative. It brings in the positive, and it keeps you mentally balanced. So it was a mood booster, a stress buster, and also a confidence builder, which I’ve talked about. And they felt it inoculated them against the stresses and strains of life. And they wanted others to benefit as they had. And I think the summary, really, is that laughter is ordinary magic. It’s hiding in plain sight. We all know how to laugh.
– Yes, yes. It’s not a skill you actually have to practice very much, isn’t it? So I develop workshops after a laugh. So, if people were to take away just three things from the studies, it’s a horrible question, I know, but what would they be?
– I think it’s important that laughter yoga is certainly not a panacea, and it will not be for everyone. But it is cross-cultural, and it’s free. It’s accessible, it’s fun, and it’s sustainable. And I think that in this post pandemic world, as well as training mental health first aid is in the workplace to spot potential mental ill health, wouldn’t it be great to train laughter leaders who can deliver monthly sessions to boost well-being, buffer stress, and to build resilience?
– If we need kind of a serious index of you’ve tipped the scales, you’re being a bit too serious, now you need to just lighten up a little bit, and you’re not allowed back at work until you lighten up.
– A , you mean.
– Yeah, kind of either a humor or a serious index that is a warning sign, actually, that somebody’s kind of heading down. Oh, that is interesting. That is interesting. Fascinating. I’ve loved this study, I’ve got to say. Anyway, just thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed this. This has been a hoot.
– Thank you very much, David. It’s absolutely great to have an opportunity to share my work. It’s been lovely. Thank you.
– Where can people find you? And I know you run laughter yoga workshops as well. And we’ll add the links to the post, but just in the short term, like if people want to contact you, what’s the best way to do so?
– I’m on laughter-lab.com, and I’m also on LinkedIn, but, yes, as well as doing laughter yoga workshops, what we do is webinars, presentations, and we want to work with teams, doing exactly what you described, bringing more levity and humor and working to reconnect virtual teams post pandemic.
– Fantastic. We’ll put all of the links in the podcast notes and the thing. So thank you very much.
– Thanks a lot, David.
– I really enjoyed that.
Hatchard, A., & Worth, P. (2021). No laughing matter: Qualitative study of the impact of laughter yoga suggests stress inoculation. European Journal of Applied Positive Psychology, 5(2), 2397-7116.
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