In April of 2020 I began to wonder if, given what was happening at the time, what I do was respectful. I teach the benefits of laughter, joy and happiness and while I know they have merit and value in difficult times, given the unfolding situation and the impact it was having on so many lives and livelihoods, I wondered if continuing to suggest we should take laughter seriously was appropriate. It didn’t take me long to realise I needn’t have worried. While it was too early for humour, the laughter enjoyed in the ever evolving collection of safe and fun activities was fast becoming the coping mechanism of choice for many. While laughter wasn’t making the situation go away, it was, as it always does, making the journey seem a little easier.
Laughter is a feeling
Humour and laughter are different things. Humour is about being the funny, and while a good joke, a quick wit or a brilliant one-liner can make us laugh and bring us together, it can also be a trojan horse, hiding comments and beliefs that can do harm and drive people apart. Laughter is a feeling, and it’s found more in conversations1 than comedy. It highlights the connection between people and indicates an understanding of what is being said and often there isn’t any humour involved.
With regular practice, laughter has been shown to support the broaden and build theory of positive emotions, the upward spiral theory of personal change2 and feelings of psychological safety3. A range of studies have also supported the understanding that laughter: fosters an adaptive stress response, boosts positive coping mechanisms, strengthens the immune system, improves circulation, lowers the risk of burnout, boosts communication and collaboration skills between individuals and within groups, boosts memory retention and recall, facilitates new neural connections, increases motivation, improves creative and innovative thought processes, fosters a willingness to try new things and the acceptance of change, raises levels of engagement, builds trust, increases workplace loyalty, improves productivity, reduces turnover, promotes personal growth, boosts feelings of subjective wellbeing (happiness) and creates a positive culture that is contagious. According to more recent research it’s also a skill that can be learned2, and one that can be easily turned into a useful habit.
Forming the habit
Habits are automatic behaviours formed when ability, motivation and a prompt combine in a way that is meaningful, is easy to repeat, and repeated often. I teach what I call Laughter Yoga Plus, a combination of evidence-based discussion and specifically designed laugher based exercises based on the neuro-science of behaviour, and designed to motivate individuals and organisations to develop laughter skills that are meaningful, can be practised in a way that suits them and are easy to repeat. If we’re going to develop a new habit, laughter is a very useful one.
Experience and research have taught me that creating a laughter habit comes down to three things:
The first is celebration. Different to reward, which is usually planned and comes well after an event, true celebration is the immediate expression of positive emotion on completion of a task or situation. It’s found in everything from the tiniest expression of ‘YES!”, to the big arm raised shouts of ‘TA DA’ that I encourage my participants to practice. The immediacy of true celebration floods the brain with dopamine, dissolves any stress associated with the task or situation, creates a memorable moment of joy, and supports the motivational mindset. To me, it’s about turning our To Do list into a Ta Da list.
The second is the smile. Both as in smiling more; smiling, even a fake smile, as long as it includes the muscles around your eyes, has been shown to boost feelings of positivity; and as an acronym. To me SMILE stands for: Stop, become Mindful, Inhale, Let go (either through gentle movement or finding a moment of laughter), and Exhale. Often, we travel through our day on auto-pilot, and while that’s our body and mind’s way of being efficient, having to think about everything would be exhausting, we often don’t notice our repeated and often reactive behaviours. SMILE gives us space to relax, to think clearly and creatively, and to formulate an appropriate response. To choose how we move forward rather than letting our subconscious choose for us.
The third comes from that often misattributed quote – Be the change you want to see. When I left the workplace that started me on my journey of investigation into laughter, I discovered that, despite all the obvious benefits, not all workplaces embraced laughter or joy, so I brought them with me. There was no humour, I simply connected with others with laughter and joy and had a general (but not toxic) attitude of positivity. To my delight, my behaviours were often contagious.
Laughter has proven benefits in the workplace and on individuals, it positively impacts physical, mental, and social health and wellbeing, and once you realise the science behind it you might feel inspired to have more of it. While sometimes even I need a reminder, I know we should be all be taking our laughter a lot more seriously. Experience and evidence tells us that we could all benefit from creating a laughter habit.
As a self confessed happiness nerd Bronwyn has an academic background in general and positive psychology, neuro-science, mindfulness, habit change, humour as a therapeutic modality, and Gross National Happiness. She’s Australia’s only Certified Humour Professional and Laughter Yoga Wellbeing Master Trainer, a popular habit change through Mindfulness coach, and the mother of 2 wonderful adults.
Combining the principles of positive psychology, neuroscience and evidence base habit change, with the calm of mindfulness and the fun of laughter yoga, Bron inspires transformation in the way we think about wellbeing. She thanks her ‘nerdness’ for inspiring others to invite her into communities and workplaces, and, thanks to recent lockdowns, home offices, lounge rooms, and even a few ‘bedroom offices’ around the world.
1. Vettin & Todt, (2004) Laughter in Conversation: Features of Occurrence and Acoustic Structure. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. 28.
2. Hatchard & Worth, (2021), No laughing matter: Qualitative study of the impact of laughter yoga suggests stress inoculation. European Journal of Applied Positive Psychology. 5(2).
3. Almeida & Josten. (2021). Not a joke: leveraging humour at work increases performance, individual happiness, and psychological safety. LSE Business Review.
Chief happiness officer