Laughter Inc: the cheering growth of the chuckle industry

Getting people to guffaw together has become a serious enterprise, report Sarah Morrison and Beren Cross

Would you drag yourself out of bed at 7am every morning to laugh your head off on the telephone with a group of total strangers? And would you pay £6 a month for the privilege? This is just one of the services people around the country are signing up for – a sure sign that in Britain, laughter is becoming an industry.

It might be one of the least serious of human activities, but corporations, schools, behavioural experts, religious leaders and health workers are suddenly desperate to get people chuckling more. 

As a growing body of research demonstrates the health benefits of a good cackle, the number of people flocking to “laughter yoga” sessions, festivals, telephone clubs, laughter-fuelled religious services and workshops is growing.

The UK’s Laughter Network – largely made up of trained laughter yoga teachers, social workers and mental health professions – has more than tripled in membership since it was launched nine years ago.

Major companies such as Barclays and consultancy firm Ernst & Young have reportedly signed employees up to laughter workshops – which can charge corporate rates of up to £500 an hour – while “giggle doctors” have attended hospitals across the country.

“Laughter is more than just laughter – it’s not just silly,” said Lotte Mikkelson, a laughter yoga trainer who has coached more than  600 teachers in Britain and laughs with anything from 20 to 40 people each day in her non-telephone club. “To maintain the physiological changes and benefits we get from it, we need to do it every day,” she added. “We’re frowned upon in society if we do big, roaring belly laughs, but laughter club is a safe space to really laugh from the belly; you really get an exchange of air, it jogs internal organs, and you benefit physically.”

The science seems to back her up. Research by the University of Arizona has suggested that laughter yoga – an Indian tradition which mixes yoga breathing techniques and forced giggling sessions – could have the potential to improve mood and stabilise heart rates in patients awaiting organ transplants.

Another study by Oxford University found that a good belly laugh shared with others can increase an individual’s pain thresholds by releasing protective endorphins.  It also suggested laughter “may play a crucial role in social bonding”.

Amanda Bate, co-founder of the Laughter Network, runs “laughter gym” sessions and workshops in Brighton and London, catering to all sorts of clients. One of her workshops was attended by 850 Ernst & Young employees.

 “Companies are starting to see what a serious tool it is. It’s allowing you to indulge without guilt; it’s laughing with purpose.” she said.

Jo Bluett turned to laughter to overcome health problems she experienced after losing her job. She now refers to herself as a “laughter facilitator” and has worked with the NHS to deliver sessions at a recovery network conference.

“When I had challenges with my own health, laughter helped me cope with pain, and be more positive,” she said. “It helped me get back into work after 10 years on benefits. It helped me regain balance and a healthy life.”

Dal Kular, a 44-year-old social worker and mental health professional, runs a weekly laughter club in Sheffield, as well as using laughter techniques with sufferers of bipolar, schizophrenia and long-term depression. She believes the boost in demand for her services has resulted from increased levels of anxiety in British society.

“People have less money, they’re experiencing low-level stress and they need a release and more fun,” she said.

Reverend David Gray agrees. The Manchester-based clergyman uses laughter as a centrepiece to much of the work he does, including weddings and funerals.  He has his own company, Creoginity, devoted to improving personal and community well-being.

“I started to do all of the things that I’ve learnt as a nurse, councillor and social worker by visiting grieving families and just totally focusing on them; humour came into the conversation,” he said.

“People who were on the floor when I walked into their home started to laugh as they remembered the character of the person, even if it was a really obnoxious person. In talking about them there was this release which was often expressed in laughter.”

The best medicine

The old adage that laughter is the best medicine may well be true, according to research that has unearthed its health benefits. It is said to relax your body, relieving physical tension and stress. Studies have found that laughter boosts the immune system.

It has been found to protect against heart disease. People who failed to smile during awkward situations or when stressed could be more likely to develop heart problems, doctors at the University of Maryland found.

Another study in the US said a good chuckle helped children to relax, reduced pain, and helped to fight cancer and diabetes. Laughter is seen as such a good tonic for children who are ill or undergoing treatment that UK hospitals employ “clown doctors”, medical experts who dress up and entertain young patients.

A 2007 US study in the International Journal of Obesity found that a daily 15-minute giggle burns calories and helps weight loss because laughing increases the heart rate and exercises muscles in the arms, legs and stomach.

Alex Delmar-Morgan

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