NPR logo Laughing Toward Health


Laughing Toward Health

I came across an interesting article published a while back (August 10, 2010) in The New Yorker magazine that I wanted to share with you. The piece, The Laughing Guru, by Raffi Khatchadourian, profiled Dr. Madan Kataria, an Indian doctor who developed techniques to induce laughter on people. Dr. Kataria claims that laughter is very good for our physical and psychological well being, and that "Laughter Yoga" can change your life.

His movement has been spreading like wildfire around the world and has attracted lots of celebrities. In an event last year called Pangea Day, millions of people watched Kataria being introduced by Goldie Hawn from Sony Picture Studios in LA. Kataria trains — for free — people interested in opening laughing clubs.

Is laughter really the best medicine? hide caption

toggle caption

Is laughter really the best medicine?

You can actually watch a short video of Kataria's technique. I did and laughed a lot, in spite of the sober narration. There is something very contagious about laughing, even if it begins with faking.

Can laughter improve your health? Unless you are a sour Victorian, who could argue against being in good spirits, taking things lightly? There's no question that people enjoy having fun. Otherwise, comedy clubs wouldn't stay open long, and we wouldn't watch comedies or late night comedy shows and sitcoms. We love a good joke and admire those able to tell them well.

Arthur Koestler, in The Act of Creation, develops the argument that humor and creativity have a lot in common: in a good joke, there is a rupture of the logic, a point where the narrative departs from its natural flow and takes a sharp turn to the unexpected. That's when we laugh. You can't control it, it just happens. If you retrace your steps and explain the joke to someone who didn't get it, it isn't funny anymore.

Koestler argues that the same sort of rupture happens during the act of creation, when a new and unexpected vision or solution pops up from the recesses of the unconscious. Without going into the merits of Koestler's idea, there is something wonderful about laughing, something we all (or most of us) covet. Given that we still know very little about laughter and creativity in general, perhaps Koestler has a point.

There have been several studies trying to measure the medical benefits of laughter. If depression and sadness can hamper your immune system, wouldn't laughter improve it? It sounds reasonable to me, although studies have been, on the whole, inconclusive and mutually contradictory. Maybe it has to do with the fairly small size of the studies, or how they are done, usually with people watching comedies like Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello. Perhaps medical and cognitive scientists should take laughter more seriously.

Robert Provine, a neuroscientist from the University of Maryland and author of Laugher: A Scientific Investigation, wrote:

"Faster and better physical health through laughter remains an unrealized, tantalizing, but still reasonable prospect."

There are many kinds of laughter, some related to communication between two or more humans (even pre-verbal, as in 4-month-old babies laughing), others to social context, or purely physiological, as when stimulated by tickling. There is even bad laughing, as in laughing at someone. The fact is, I feel happy when I look at my "Laughing Buddha" statue. Perhaps my stress hormone levels decrease a bit as a result.

Even if the science remains controversial, I will try some of Dr. Kataria's exercises. Apart from the occasional stomach cramp, it surely can't hurt :-)