Why Forced Laughter Is So Good for You

The ancient practice has an underrated impact on mood and mental health

Two rugby players laughing during practice.
These chummy fellows don't seem to be forcing it. But any sort of laughter can cascade a wave of benefits.
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There’s a memorable scene in the Labrador season of Alone (the History Channel show on which competing survivalists are dropped off in the remote wilderness with bows and arrows and GoPros) where a guy named Benji walks out into the middle of a field and starts laughing like a maniac. He’d killed a beaver a couple days before and lived on his own in the upper reaches of the Canadian wilderness for more than three weeks, so on some level, this behavior seemed par for the course. But eventually, he cut off his chuckling and explained himself: he was practicing forced laughter, a therapy technique typical of the Chinese art of qigong. He set off to build his shelter, skin hides and do other survivalist things, saying he felt refreshed and ready for the day.

Unlike Benji and his northerly paradise, the rest of us live and operate in proximity to other human beings. The idea of throwing our heads back and pretending to laugh sounds trivial, embarrassing. But if you can get past the initial self-judgment, the practice poses some real benefits. We explain.

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Intro to Qijong

Qijong is a traditional Chinese martial art, with close ties to tai chi. It’s more targeted than the latter, though — while both emphasize the collaborative power of breath, meditation and movement (a method for recruiting qi, or one’s “life energy”), qijong may prioritize the repetition of one specific move over and over again in order to regain balance, strength or confidence in a section of the body.

For instance: one of the most popular qijong programs is designed to help “open up” the chest by focusing on the function of the diaphragm, shoulders and upper arms. This can encourage improved airflow into the lungs. Tai chi could achieve the same result in time, but it’s more of a full-body flow.

Laugh It Up

Qijong programs that incorporate laughter are highly effective at boosting mood and cognitive function. But don’t just take our word for it. A study of seniors at a long-term care institute in northern Taiwan found that participants who attended “laughing qijong” twice a week for just a month exhibited increased “Mini-Mental State Examination scores” and decreased “Geriatric Depression Scale scores.”

Again, it might feel or sound a little weird to force yourself to laugh when there’s nothing remotely funny in front of you. But the practice has parallels in yoga (lion’s breath is designed to relieve facial tension, improve circulation and lighten your mood). And there’s evidence that other “forced” methods out there, such as humming to stimulate the vagus nerve, engage our parasympathetic systems and increase longevity.

Laughter therapy needs more research, but anything that (a) releases endorphins, (b) jumpstarts lymphatic drainage and (c) puts a clamp on cortisol levels is worth a try. Whether you choose to practice qijong or not, plug some laughter into your mornings. Just make sure to forewarn your housemates if you don’t have an endless wilderness nearby.

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