The importance of laughter and hugs
PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 May 2020
Credit: Andrea Pittori / Alamy Stock Vector
We all need a laugh right now and perhaps a hug, and you may be surprised to learn just how powerful these two simple things can be
Do you think you could stand in a group and just laugh and laugh and laugh – despite there being nothing funny? Because there is a growing body of Hertfordshire folk who believe that chuckling for the sake of it is the key to inner peace. And science backs it up.
World Laughter Day this month (May 3) celebrates laughter yoga, which has been shown to elevate mood, burn calories, reduce stress, boost the immune system, improve memory and thinking, efficiency and performance, raise energy levels and resilience and is a great social connector. Not a bad list, hey?
Described as helping you keep fit and healthy while having fun, it is centred on the idea that just pretending to laugh induces certain responses that are good for us. As long as you are prepared to laugh – even if you don’t find anything funny – the psychological and physiological benefits are triggered. Normal daily laughter lasts only three to four seconds, whereas laughing yoga is sustained for 10-15 minutes. Oh, and apart from its name, it has nothing to do with downward dog or tree poses.
In a case of ‘fake it ‘til you make it’, the good news is that once you start simulating laughter, genuine laughter usually follows.
But if laughter exercises sound too good to be true – laughter and exercise are not typically synonymous – here are two laughter experts who can help clarify. I envision them both as extra characters in that Mary Poppins scene, everyone in hysterics on the ceiling singing Love to Laugh with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.
Lotte Mikkelsen is a yoga master trainer and facilitator, who has lived in Herts for the past 18 years. She runs the second oldest laughter club in the UK, which began in St Albans in 2004. It’s held on the first Sunday of each month in 1st St Albans Scouts Group hut and also online (The Laughter Club International). Due to the current coronavirus restrictions, Lotte is hosting an online session to replace the physical class. It’s on Zoom every Sunday from 1-1.30pm.
‘All sorts of people come from all walks of life,’ Lotte, 52, says, ‘It’s all-inclusive, non-political and non-religious – all for the sake of sharing good intentional laughter. ‘Laughter is for everyone and when we laugh, we change. We cannot think negative thoughts and that is what is so refreshing and renewing about laughter. Anyone can open their mouth and say ‘ho-ho-ha-ha-ha’ and turn their lips up. That really is all it takes, even for a cynic, as long as you don’t chat during exercises. This is because talking engages our thinking, and in laughter we simply want to experience fun without thought.’
There is even The Telephone Laughter Club (free until July 1) where callers laugh together for 10 minutes on weekday mornings to set them up for the day.
It might seem new, but laughter yoga turns 25 this year and, since it began, thousands of people have benefitted from practising it all over the world. It was created by Dr Madan Kataria in 1995 and started with five participants in a park in Mumbai, India. Now there are hundreds of laughter clubs around the globe.
Karen Puttick is a laughter yoga facilitator, hypnotist and coach, who works with clients from Watford, Welwyn, Rickmansworth, St Albans, Harpenden and Borehamwood. She won a highly commended accolade in the 2018 Shining Star business awards and was a finalist in the Best Women in Business Awards that same year. Her practice is based in Amersham, near Watford, from where she runs face-to-face sessions and also online groups.
Karen, originally from St Albans, says, ‘With eye contact and childlike playfulness, it soon becomes real and infectious. It combines laughter exercises with a little bit of yoga breathing.
‘Put very simply, deep laughter and connection increases endorphins production, oxygen intake is improved, and play stimulates the brain.’
The 59-year-old admits that it can feel uncomfortable at first – especially if the others in the group are strangers or work colleagues – but says that the atmosphere lightens quickly and soon everyone is laughing for the sake of laughing.
She has worked with five year olds up to 85 year olds with varying levels of fitness and mobility and from all backgrounds, including teenagers who she says are the toughest group, ‘but even they come round in the end’.
‘It can feel really strange. Forced laughing doesn’t last long at my sessions but therapeutically it doesn’t matter whether it is fake or real.’
She adds that laughter meditation is the most amazing thing to be part of. ‘Some people find it comfortable to just rest in the moment – no smiling or laughing. Others cannot stem the release of laughter and there’s a full spectrum in between; giggling, crying, an occasional chortle. People sometimes surprise themselves.
‘Laughter is great no matter how it is accessed. However, it is rare in normal life to laugh deeply and in a sustained way as you do during a laughter yoga session. Therapeutically, a session in a group with a trained facilitator has greater impact on every level.’
Laughter yoga is recognised by many medical and scientific organisations. Companies including Google, IKEA, Facebook, Royal College of Physicians and major financial institutions are using it to improve staff wellbeing.
Similar to laughter therapy, cuddle therapy works on the principle that it enduces positive effects in the body and mind.
Hertfordshire cuddle therapist (is there a cosier kind of therapist I wonder?), Mirela Dumitrescu describes her job of giving hugs as fun and soulful. Cuddle therapy is practised one-to-one between a client and a therapist. Each individual session lasts between one and four hours, as determined by the client. The client also chooses whether they speak to one another or stay silent during the therapy.
Mirela reports that clients usually feel relaxed within five to 15 minutes, adding that they ‘come once to try it out and it can lead to regular sessions, if the client-therapist connection and location are a match.’
The therapy takes place in clients’ homes around Hertfordshire and from her London-based studio (although not at the moment of couse, due to the lockdown restrictions).
The 33-year-old, who is affiliated to the Nordic Cuddle organisation, says reasons people seek cuddle therapy include loneliness, touch deprivation, fear of connecting with others and trauma related to touch. Others attend out of curiosity ‘over the psychological aspects of platonic touch’.
The benefits of cuddle therapy are similar to those of other touch therapies, with lower stress levels, a decrease in blood pressure and heart rate and an improved immune system found.
‘Cuddle therapy can help people with busy stressful lives in multiple ways,’ Mirela states. ‘I believe it can give them a type of connection with their practitioner. Experiencing platonic touch can put things into perspective for most people, who feel safe and cared for in a warm environment.
‘There is a strong calming effect on the mind, body and the nervous system. Cuddles also release oxytocin which is the so-called happy hormone because it makes you feel good – which explains the smile we have at the end of the session.’
Oxytocin release also helps build trust and creates bonds on an emotional level.
But how does it differ to a hug from a friend, relative or partner? And surely a paid-for hug from a therapist doesn’t feel as good as a free one from someone you love?
‘It’s important to remember that all therapies are there to support clients and exist because there is a lack of something or a problem to address.
‘This can be compared to seeing a psychologist for psychological help or going for a professional massage.
‘A cuddle from a loved one doesn’t usually last an hour, whereas a cuddle session does, and this is where we can really feel the benefits.’
We might imagine poor unloved souls having to pay for human touch and feel sorry for them. But therapists agree it is empowering. It can even help unlock a cuddling side that clients can then take out of the therapy room with them.
And it is not especially that those who use the service have no-one to hug, although sometimes this is the case, which Mirela admits does make her feel a bit sad, before adding that this makes her job even more useful.
‘It’s important to understand that the human body has needs and some of these are crucial to our health and wellbeing. Touch is one of these and sometimes we don’t get enough in our own environment, hence cuddle therapy provides a substitution.
‘It is compensative touch for clients which allows them not only to experience it but also to build the skill to ask for it in their own personal lives, as well as provide it to their loved ones.
‘A client can come without trusting or understanding the concept of the therapy and leave with absolute confidence that they not only understand but can also share and enjoy it in their lives. What’s more rewarding than that?’
To find out more about Lotte Mikkelsen’s laughter clubs, visit laughteryoga.co.uk
More information about Karen Puttick’s services can be found at chilternhypnotherapy.co.uk
Cuddle therapist Mirela Dumitrescu can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or see the Nordic Cuddle Facebook page.