What Is Laugh Therapy, and Should You Try It?
Science suggests caring for our mental health doesn't have to be so serious. A leading humor expert explains the power of laugh therapy and how humor can shift your thoughts and perspective for the better.
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Laughter is more than an automatic response to a joke, according to 2023 research published in New Ideas in Psychology. Researchers believe that having a sense of humor may be a trait that’s been preserved by natural selection over millennia to help humans survive. First, laughter is like social glue that helps us bond—crucial for our ancestors who relied on strength in numbers, and today as studies continue to show that social relationships improve our physical health, mental wellness, and lifespans.
But the research also says that laughter signals our nervous system that a perceived threat has passed, suppressing our fight-or-flight stress response. This effect is one reason why many mental health professionals are turning to laughter as a therapeutic tool through methods such as laugh therapy.
What is laugh therapy?
There’s a distinction between laughter and humor, explains Steven Sultanoff, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Pepperdine University who has studied humor for 35 years. “Humor is a stimulus and laughter is a response,” he explains. The physical act of laughter itself has physiological benefits—even if it’s forced. In fact, a 2020 study found that just smiling tricks your brain into feeling happier.
But humor itself involves a shift in someone’s perspective. “Almost all psychological distress comes out of their thinking process,” Dr. Sultonoff says. “If you change people’s negative thought processes, you directly impact their emotional well-being.”
That’s where humor plays a role in mental health. “Distressing emotions such as feeling anxious, angry, or depressed and the uplifting emotion of humor cannot occupy the same psychological space,” he says. So in laugh therapy, the therapist intervenes where these distressing emotions occur, helping people learn to change those thoughts and feelings through humor.
How does laugh therapy work?
Dr. Sultoff says that the goal of laugh therapy is developing a “comic vision”—seeing the humor in the world around you or taking a look at the stressors in your life and finding ways to see the funny side.
He refers to one area of study in the humor field: How people cope after a disaster. “We very often see people using humor as coping mechanisms after an event like a hurricane,” he says, like putting up signs that say “house for sale, some assembly required.” This humor response helps distance someone from the distressing emotions of the event itself.
In a clinical setting, laugh therapy aims to teach this response, Dr. Sultonoff says. And if you practice it, humor can become automatic, stemming negative thought patterns. He references one patient, a new father, who suffered from severe anxiety and panic attacks. The patient shared a story about leaving a hair salon when the stylist noted it had started raining, advising him to cover up the baby.
“Immediately, he felt extremely anxious about [being perceived] as a bad father,” Dr. Sultonoff says. So they began an exercise discussing what the patient could have said in reply to ease his anxiety. After the patient offered a few defensive and anxiety-driven responses, Dr. Sultonoff suggested: Or we could say something like, well, the baby hasn’t had a shower today. “And he got this big grin on his face,” he says. “Then he came up with another: Don’t worry about the baby, we had him Scotch-guarded at the hospital.”
The distress this patient created for himself by repeating the scenario in his head lifted after he came up with a pleasant tone for it, Dr. Sultonoff explains. And they continued to practice this exercise in response to other stress-inducing situations. After some time, the patient developed this ability to find and create humor in everyday scenarios. “It became part of the fabric of his life and greatly reduced his anxiety.”
Is laugh therapy effective?
A 2022 review of studies published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice found that laughter-inducing interventions have significant positive effects on mental and physical health outcomes ranging from reduced depression and anxiety to blood pressure control.
“Processing humor and responding to it via laughter actually generates a tremendous amount of brain activity,” says Brian King, PhD, a neurologist, psychologist, stand-up comedian, and author of The Art of Taking it Easy. “So much so that the ability to recognize and respond appropriately to humor is often used as an easy indication that our brain is healthy or otherwise uninjured after an incident.” He explains that one of the most important physiological functions of laughter is how it suppresses stress hormones in our body. And “stress is a factor in almost every physical and mental illness we suffer.”
How do I start?
Dr. Sultonoff’s approach to humor therapy fits within the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) model. “In cognitive therapy, mostly what you’re trying to do is help people change the way they think,” he says. This requires changing their perspective, and humor helps people start seeing and thinking about life differently. So if you’re receiving or seeking CBT, this is one tool you could ask your provider to incorporate.
But you can practice laughter therapy outside of a mental health professional’s office, too. There are instructor-led laugh therapy groups or clubs that can involve simulated/voluntary laughter exercises, funny games, and other activities that aim to trigger spontaneous laughter. “Even if the laughter is fake at first, the exercises become silly and ridiculous—and it shifts to genuine humor.” There’s also laughter yoga, a technique that combines mindful movement, breathwork, and laughter.
Still, you can also practice incorporating humor in your life day-to-day by making time for “sitcoms, stand-up comedians, late night talk shows, YouTube videos, funny TikToks, whatever form of comedy you connect with,” Dr. King says. (Even Deepak Chopra turns to funny Youtube videos to beat stress.) Or try keeping a humor journal. “If you really think about it, so many funny things happen every day,” Dr. Sultonoff says. And by mindfully acknowledging the humor in your day, you train yourself to shift your perspective to seeing the world through a lighter, funnier lens—and gain the health benefits that come along with a little more laughter.
Brian King, PhD, a neurologist, psychologist, stand-up comedian, and author of The Art of Taking it Easy
New Ideas in Psychology: "Laughter: A signal of ceased alarm toward a perceived incongruity between life and stiffness"
SSM Population Health: "Establishing a causal link between social relationships and health using the Bradford Hill Guidelines"
Experimental Psychology: "Your Face and Moves Seem Happier When I Smile"
Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice: "Efficacy of laughter-inducing interventions in patients with somatic or mental health problems: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized-controlled trials"