You don’t need to be happy to smile or laugh, but they can make you happier. The benefits of it go beyond the present moment.
“How do you know if somebody is happy?” Usually people reply: “The person laughs or smiles.” Does that mean that all laughing and smiling people are happy? As we all know, this is not true. In fact, laughter is much more than just an outward barometer of somebody’s internal emotional state.

Three types of laughter

Ruch and Ekman (2001) distinguish three types of laughter in non-clinical contexts:

– Speaking or singing “hahaha”

– Fake laughter

– Real laughter

The type of laughter generally associated with happiness is the real laughter, also referred to as Duchenne laughter. It is recognisable by the wrinkles around the eyes when a particular set of facial muscles are activated. Positive emotions are at the root of this type of laughter: We need to be happy first, before we can produce a real smile.

The other two types of laughter don’t require any positive emotions because all a person does is say “hahaha” or raise the corners of the mouth. It is a controlled action, maybe to be polite or to hide real thoughts or emotions. But only because positive emotions are absent at the start, doesn’t mean they can’t emerge through fake laughter.

Getting from fake to real

The physical act of laughing – especially when sustained – is hard work. Laughing for 10-15 minutes can burn between 10 and 40 kcal (Buchowski et al., 2007). Research suggests that laughter exercises the trunk muscles (Wagner, Rehmes, Kohle, & Puta, 2014) and increases the depth of our breathing. This results in a surge of endorphins – and endorphins make people feel happier (Dunbar et al., 2012). This is especially true if done in a social context because laughter is contagious and Laughter Yoga aim precisely for that effect. In a typical Laughter Club they combine 20-30 minutes of unconditional laughter (i.e. no jokes) with an element of childlike playfulness (i.e. laughing just for the sake of it) and typically finish with a short meditation.

Does fake laughter really make people happier?

It would seem so. A Laughter Club pilot study in Australia (Weinberg, Hammond, & Cummins, 2014) found:

– significant improvement in positive emotions,

– a reduction of anxiety and stress symptom severity, and

– improved general life satisfaction.

In brief, the study suggested an increase in subjective wellbeing (i.e. happiness) in non-clinical participants.

Similarly, promising results were observed with children and the elderly and in a variety of clinical settings, for example with dialysis and cancer patients. Because the exercises can be done standing or seated, don’t require equipment and can be adapted to the participants, this intervention lends itself to a wide range of applications. Next time you wash the car or do your ironing, why not just laugh the time away and lighten both the chore and the mood?

Broaden and build

The effects of laughter and frequent positive emotions go beyond the moment. The Broaden-and-Build Theory (e.g. Cohn & Fredrickson, 2009) posits that positive emotions broaden a person’s thought-action repertoire. Based on this, they can then build lasting resources for the future which results in an upward spiral.

Thus, positive emotions not only make us happier, they help us stay happier – especially when life throws its challenges at us (Kuiper & Martin, 1998). This reservoir of happiness allows us to cope with stressful events more creatively and – because positive emotions tend to be linked with stronger relationships – we may receive more social support to see us through.

Before and after happiness

Just to be clear: That doesn’t mean we should deny or suppress the experience of negative emotions. For example, when somebody has lost their spouse, giving them time, space and support to grief may arguably be more important and helpful than sending them to the next Laughter Club. Negative emotions are part and parcel of daily life, even if we may not like them. But laughter (and humour) may offer an additional tool for coping with stressful events, and it may help build resilience to make the negative emotions bearable when they do occur.

Building this reservoir of happiness during the good (or better) times is a worthwhile activity and may as well be fun. And the good thing about laughter is that we don’t need to be happy first before we can practise our laughter muscles. A smile and a laugh can be the before and after of happiness.


‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’

The Positive Psychology People is co-founded and sponsored
by Lesley Lyle and Dan Collinson,
Directors of Positive Psychology Learning and authors of the
8-week online Happiness Course


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