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Joking aside - Edinburgh Laughter Club

Written by
Gareth Davies

There's a woman somewhere behind me, baying like a hyena, while somewhere to my left I can hear the deep throaty rumble of a man guffawing to himself. But this isn't a comedy show. I'm lying on my back, laughing. My abdomen is wobbling tremulously, as my laughter threatens to boil over into breathless hysteria.

Two minutes ago we were passing around an imaginary ball of laughter; shortly before that we were using our fingers as antennae as we wiggled and giggled our way around the room. Anyone stumbling into this group by accident would wonder if we were all in the grip of a nitrous oxide leak, but there's nothing sinister behind this outbreak. We're all willing participants in Edinburgh's Laughter Club, seeking to chuckle ourselves healthy - and if it sounds like I'm having a giraffe, be assured that the ideas underpinning the Laughter Club's ethos are perfectly serious.

Since 1995, over 60,000 laughter clubs have been established in over 100 countries around the world, drawing on ideas and techniques developed by Dr Madan Kataria. Jo Bluett of Laughter for Health runs a number of drop-in sessions across Edinburgh, and she invited me to experience a session at the Eric Liddell Centre on Morningside Road, where the group meets every week.

I'll admit I was a little nervous about the session - what if they all laughed better than me?! - but as I chatted with members of the group before it began I quickly got a sense of why these clubs are becoming increasingly popular. As well as offering a break from the business and busy-ness of daily life, the groups foster a positive spirit that engages and nurtures, with an opportunity for social connection that people might otherwise lack. And, more than anything else, they're great fun.

The first rule of Laughter Club is that our bodies can't tell the difference between real and fake laughter. As such, Jo encourages us to let go of the idea that we need a reason to laugh - I had been worried that my sense of humour might be different to those in group, and that I'd be left sitting stoney faced as they wet themselves at something funny, but in fact we were encouraged to laugh without needing a stimulus.

There was no joke telling, no YouTube videos of pandas sneezing or cats exhibiting any of the anthropomorphic behaviours that traditionally give us cause to smirk, and (thankfully) no need to sit through any re-runs of 1970s sitcoms on Dave. We were just laughing for the sake of laughing, and - perhaps bizarrely - what starts as 'fake' or forced laughter in the group session can transform into authentic, natural laughter; the experience is contagious, and immensely liberating.

If the idea of laughter being available on the NHS seems (ironically) laughable, there is some medical backing to the health benefits of having a good chuckle. (Pay attention, here comes the science-y bit...)

As well as releasing endorphins - our bodies' natural painkillers and mood enhancers - sustained laughter can have a positive effect on blood pressure, breathing and energy levels. We naturally exhale while laughing, resulting in an intense exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen, and the muscular workout we experience with a belly laugh helps with abdominal toning and calorie burning. Plus the laughter clubs foster a sense of community which enriches the lives of those who take part.

I was still feeling a little apprehensive about laughing out loud in public, but a series of fun/bizarre exercises - such as mixing a 'cocktail' of two different laughter sounds, with appropriate hand gestures, and the aforementioned finger-wiggling and the imaginary ball passing - was effective in disarming the inner monologue of my rational brain ('This is soooo weird...'), and before long I was merrily joining in a number of songs with actions and laughing along with the rest of the group.

As Jo had suggested to me before the group, laughing can be physically quite demanding - sustained laughter is comparable with exercising on a rowing machine, apparently, and I know which I'd prefer to do - and as I lay on the floor, listening to the sound of my own laughter mingling with that of the rest of the group, I did begin to feel the effects of the exertion kicking in. My abdominal muscles (such as they are) probably hadn't worked this hard since that time I thought about going to the gym, and face ache was creeping into my jaw and cheeks. I began to understand why the sessions carry cautions for people with some underlying health conditions.

At the end of the session several of the group approach to ask what I made of it, whether I enjoyed it, how I feel... There's a lot of smiling, but all of it entirely genuine, and I find myself smiling along and nodding and smiling more. I understand now how primal the experience of laughter is, and I leave the group on a definite cloud of warmth, energised and enriched from the session.

Laughter is the shortest distance between two people, it is said; also, laugh and the world laughs with you. As such, Laughter Clubs may be the next big thing in bringing people together, and helping to make the world a happier, healthier place to be. Seriously.

Edinburgh Laughter Clubs are run as drop-in sessions every Wednesday (6.30pm-8.00pm) at Walpole Hall in Palmerston Place, and Thursday (11.00am-12pm) at the Eric Liddell Centre on Morningside Road.

Edinburgh Laughter Club is run on a not-for-profit basis; a donation of £5 per session is suggested, and all money raised supports local healthcare charities. Contact Jo Bluett at Laughter For Health for more information.

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