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With school about to start, and the world still feeling pretty topsy-turvy, it’s likely that there will be some stressful moments in the days and weeks ahead.

To deal with stress, we’ve all been told that we should do things like go for a run, meditate, yoga, listen to chill music, take deep breaths, pet our dog, and maybe not drink that 6-pack of Red Bull.

But many of the stress-reducing strategies that you typically find on internet top-10 lists seem so…serious.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it made me wonder about laughing. Like, don’t people say that laughter is the best medicine? Umm…and who is “people?”

Well, there’s physician Dr. Madan Kataria (the “Guru of Giggling”), for one, and his global Laughter Yoga movement.

There’s also psychologist Dr. Steve Wilson (the “Cheerman of the Bored”) and his World Laughter Tour organization, which provides laughter facilitation training for folks who want to be able to use laughter in more therapeutic ways.

And even the military is taking laughter seriously, as Colonel James Scott is helping military families use laughter to cope with the deployment of loved ones.

I guess it makes sense, but what does the research say? Does laughter really lower our stress levels in any meaningful sort of way? And if so, why?

Not as much research as you’d think

Believe it or not, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of research on whether there’s any link between laughter and stress reduction. The few studies that do exist, were conducted in a lab setting, so it’s not clear how this plays out in the “real world” when people experience legitimate life stressors.

A “real-world” study

So a team of researchers (Zander-Schellenberg et al., 2020) decided to take a closer look. They recruited 41 university students to participate in a study where for two weeks, they would receive a prompt on their phone, eight times a day, at random intervals between 8am and 9:30pm, asking them to log not just how often they laughed, but how intense their laughter was.

They were also asked to report any stressful events that happened since the last prompt. As well as rate their symptoms of stress in 8 different areas. Like, “I suffered from stomach pressure or a stomach ache”, “I had a lump in my throat”, “I had a headache”, “I had twitching/convulsions in my face that I could not control”, “I ruminated”, “I felt desperate”, “I was nervous”, and “I felt restless.”

So did laughter have an effect on real-world stress?

Two hypotheses

Well, the researchers went into this study with two hypotheses. 

One, was that laughing more frequently would make stressful experiences feel less stressful.

The other, was that more intense laughter would reduce stress more than less intense laughter.

When it comes to laughter frequency, the results suggest that the researchers may be onto something. Because the more often participants laughed, the weaker the link was between the occurrence of stressful events and reports of stress-related symptoms. In other words, laughing more frequently seemed to make stressful events feel less stressful.

Curiously though, laughing intensity, didn’t seem to have any meaningful effect on stress. You’d think that one of those knee-slapping, rolling-on-the-ground, can’t-control-yourself, tears-streaming-down-your-face, type of laughs would have more of an impact on stress than one of those quiet appropriate-for-the-library chuckles. But they didn’t find evidence of that here.

That said, the researchers say that we shouldn’t dismiss this as a possibility quite yet, because it may have just been a data collection issue. As in, it might just be that it’s a lot easier to remember how often you laughed and harder to accurately remember how hard you laughed.

Ok, so that’s cool and all – but why does laughter seem to have this stress-buffering effect?

Why?

Well, the simple explanation is that laughing puts us in a better mood. And previous studies in this area suggest that being in a more positive mood does tend to act as a protective buffer on our experience of stressful events, helping us get to a more centered place amidst stressful events, and even reduce our symptoms.

Which made me think of a few musicians I know who like to watch episodes of shows like The Office or Friends on audition or performance days, to keep themselves in a slightly lighter headspace. Hmm…perhaps there’s something to this strategy?

Caveats

But one thing to keep in mind before you pitch your laughter therapy center franchise idea on Shark Tank, is that the sample of students used in this study wasn’t very diverse – 33 of the 41 participants were female, and the average age of participants was about 22. So it’s possible that these findings may not apply more broadly to men or younger/older folks. 

Plus, the students didn’t report a ton of super stressful life events, so it’s not clear if these findings would apply to hugely stressful events, or if a whole crapload of stressful events were dumped on you all at once.

That said, a good laugh or chuckle every now and again probably never hurts. =)

And to that end, if you’re so inclined, feel free to leave a link to something in the comments below that’s given you a good chuckle or belly laugh recently (just keeping in mind that there are some readers of the blog who are on the younger side!). =)


References

Zander-Schellenberg, T., Collins, I. M., Miché, M., Guttmann, C., Lieb, R., & Wahl, K. (2020). Does laughing have a stress-buffering effect in daily life? An intensive longitudinal study. PLOS ONE, 15(7), e0235851. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0235851

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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