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Laughter Therapy for Older Adults

Explore the benefits of laughter therapy, a unique approach that uses humor to improve physical, mental, and social health.
Published on
April 15, 2024
Presented by Givers
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Rooted in the idea that laughter is medicine, laughter therapy has evolved into a structured practice that involves various laughter exercises and techniques. Laughter therapy alleviates stress, enhances health, and enriches social connections, making it important in wellness and healthcare settings.

What is laughter therapy?

Laughter therapy, or humor therapy, involves using laughter and humor to promote overall wellness and relieve physical and emotional stresses. The underlying principle of laughter therapy is that laughter can reduce stress, enhance oxygen intake, stimulate the heart and lungs, and increase endorphins released by the brain, all of which help with greater relaxation and reduced stress. This form of therapy is used in hospitals, retirement homes, and wellness programs and can be practiced in groups or individually.

Laughter therapy sessions may involve laughter exercises, clapping, breathing exercises, stretching, and playful activities designed to induce laughter. It's not just about cracking jokes; it's a structured approach to triggering laughter's physical and psychological benefits. This therapy is used for a variety of health conditions, including as a complementary treatment to improve the quality of life for those dealing with chronic illnesses or emotional challenges like depression and anxiety.

History of laughter therapy

Laughter therapy, as a formalized approach, traces its roots back to the mid-20th century, although the idea that laughter could be healing is age-old. The modern movement was significantly influenced by Norman Cousins, an American journalist, who, in the 1960s, documented his recovery from a painful illness by watching comedic movies and experiencing the pain-relieving effects of laughter. 

His experiences led to a broader acceptance and interest in the therapeutic benefits of laughter, and in 1995, Dr. Madan Kataria developed laughter yoga, combining laughter exercises with yogic breathing. This practice has since spread globally, promoting the use of laughter in therapy and wellness programs worldwide.


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Effects of laughter therapy for older adults

Physical health benefits

Laughter is a natural stress reliever. When we laugh, our body reduces the production of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which help calm the body's stress response and reduce anxiety levels.

Enhanced oxygen intake happens because laughter involves deeper respiratory patterns, which improves oxygen supply to the heart, lungs, and muscles. This increased circulation can also lead to better vascular function and reduced risk of heart attacks. 

Laughter also involves repetitive motion of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles, which helps relax these muscles, reducing physical symptoms of stress. The release of endorphins triggered by laughter elevates mood and can temporarily relieve pain, providing a natural pain management tool.

Mental health benefits

Laughter is a powerful mood enhancer and resilience builder. It increases the release of endorphins, which are natural mood lifters, thereby helping to alleviate feelings of depression and anxiety. Regular laughter can create a positive outlook on life, fostering emotional resilience, which allows individuals to handle adversities more effectively. Additionally, laughter can shift one's perspective on challenging situations, making problems seem less intimidating and more manageable. 

Social benefits

The shared experience of laughter can break down barriers and enhance feelings of connectedness between people. This is particularly beneficial in group settings where fostering community and mutual support is key. 

Laughter can improve communication and reduce conflicts, as it often diffuses tension and promotes a more lighthearted and positive interaction environment. Sharing laughter also reinforces group identity and cooperation, making navigating social dynamics easier and maintaining healthier relationships.


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Best type of laughter for humor therapy

Different types of laughter

There are different types of laughter, each reflecting various emotional states or social functions:

  1. Spontaneous laughter: This is the genuine laughter that comes from amusement, joy, or something genuinely funny. It is involuntary and is often characterized by a series of rhythmic, vocal ha-ha-ha sounds.
  2. Stimulated laughter: Unlike spontaneous laughter, stimulated laughter is triggered by external stimuli, such as tickling, that may not necessarily be funny. It's an instinctual response to physical touch in sensitive areas.
  3. Nervous laughter: This type of laughter occurs in response to stress, anxiety, or discomfort. It serves as a nervous system response to diffuse tension or confusion in awkward social situations.
  4. Social laughter: Laughter is a tool for bonding or connecting with others. It may occur in social situations where people laugh to show agreement, encourage conversation, or fit into a group, even if the stimulus isn't particularly funny.
  5. Forced laughter: Sometimes, people laugh because they feel the social expectation to do so, even if they do not find something amusing. This is often seen in social or professional scenarios where one might laugh at a joke, comment out of politeness, or appear agreeable.
  6. Derisive laughter: This type of laughter is used to mock or belittle someone else. It can be mean-spirited and is often intended to make the other person feel excluded or embarrassed.
  7. Contagious laughter: Laughter that spreads through groups independently of any comedic stimulus. It's often triggered by hearing someone laugh and doesn't necessarily require understanding what initially caused it.

Each type of laughter serves different purposes, from strengthening social bonds and expressing emotions to simply being a physiological response. Understanding these can help interpret social cues and manage social interactions more effectively.

Best type of laughter for laughter therapy

Spontaneous laughter is the most beneficial form of laughter therapy. It arises naturally from genuine joy or amusement and involves the whole body, which can stimulate the physical and psychological benefits associated with laughter. Simulated laughter is also encouraged, as it can lead to genuine laughter.

Simulated laughter starts as voluntary or forced but can quickly turn into real, contagious laughter that has similar physiological and psychological effects as spontaneous laughter. This form of laughter is handy in laughter-inducing therapies because it can be made accessible even when there's no humorous stimulus present.

The idea behind using simulated laughter in therapy is rooted in the concept that the body can't distinguish between real and fake laughter; both produce similar effects, such as releasing endorphins, reducing stress hormone levels, and enhancing mood. 

How to facilitate laughter therapy

Laughter-inducing therapies can include activities such as watching comedies, sharing jokes, participating in laughter yoga sessions, and even forced laughter exercises, where participants intentionally laugh without humor stimuli, as the body can't differentiate between real and fake laughter regarding physiological response.

  1. Watching comedy: Set up regular movie nights or comedy hours where you and your loved one watch stand-up comedy specials, funny films, or listen to humorous audiobooks together.
  2. Sharing jokes: Encourage a lighthearted atmosphere by sharing jokes or comic strips daily. You might also share funny stories or memories and invite friends or family with a good sense of humor for visits.
  3. Try laughter yoga: Facilitate laughter yoga sessions by leading your loved one through fun and simple laughter exercises, such as smiling and chuckling over nothing in particular, combined with traditional yoga breathing techniques.
  4. Keep a laughter journal: Encourage your loved one to keep a journal in which they write down something that makes them laugh each day.
  5. Playful activities: Organize activities you know their loved one enjoys, like playing card games, dancing to favorite music, or interacting with pets. 

Laughter yoga exercises

Try laughter yoga exercises with your loved ones to inject joy into your home routine. While the laughter may start as forced, it can quickly turn into genuine laughter.

  1. Greeting laughter: Start each morning by greeting your loved one with a big, exaggerated smile and a playful "hello" in different funny voices. 
  2. Gradient laughter: Sit together and start smiling, then let the smiles turn into soft chuckles and gradually increase to full, hearty laughter. 
  3. Appreciation laughter: Take turns giving each other exaggerated, funny compliments. For example, you could say, "You make the best cup of tea in the universe, and your smile lights up the galaxy!"
  4. Clapping and chanting: Clap together in a rhythm while chanting a simple, fun phrase like "ho-ho, ha-ha-ha." 
  5. Animal laughter: Choose your favorite animals and take turns imitating their sounds. You can bark, meow, or moo, turning it into a little contest to see who can be the silliest.

These activities can be an excellent way for caregivers to inject some lighthearted fun into daily routines, helping the caregiver and their loved one feel more relaxed and connected through laughter.

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