I Joined A Telephone Laughter Club

    Therapeutic laughter is booming. Clubs are springing up all over the world. Are there really health benefits to laughing at nothing?

    It is 7 a.m. on a Monday morning, and I am sat at my kitchen table in my pyjamas, grumpily. I am on a conference call with approximately five strangers, and we are laughing together. Except we are not all laughing. I am exhaling worriedly, allowing my long breaths to make a hawwwwww sound.

    I hate this so much.

    I have committed to signing up to a Telephone Laughter Club in the U.K. for a month. It is run by a lovely woman named Lotte, who signs off her emails with "a day without laughter is a day wasted". I sign off my emails with my Twitter handle. The club runs from 7 a.m. to 7:10 a.m. Monday to Friday (or 8 a.m. to 8:10 a.m. on Bank Holidays). It costs 5 pounds a month to join, which pays for the freephone number you have to call.

    This weekend, Manchester will host the 3rd annual U.K. National Laughter Festival. Madan Kataria will be the keynote speaker. Kataria (colloquially known as the Guru of Giggling) is the creator of Laughter Yoga. Created in 1995, the practise is a combination of yogic breathing (pranayama), and voluntary laughter. Purely laughter though — no jokes, humour, or comedy. The idea is that your brain doesn't register the difference between fake and real laughter, and it produces the same endorphins regardless, resulting in enhanced well-being. Kataria claims that laughter "helps you to unwind the negative effects of stress, and also boosts your immune system".

    There are more than 6,000 Laughter Clubs, in over 60 countries, and a quick search for 'Laughter Yoga London' brings up a group with almost 450 members. If you can't attend a physical Laughter Club, there are Skype Laughter Clubs. Similarly, there are Telephone Laughter Clubs in the U.S., Australia, and the U.K. And look, here we are.

    It is the first day of Laughter Month, and I am so nervous. I rise at 6:50 a.m., put the coffee machine on, and sit down at the kitchen table. My boyfriend is asleep next door. Slightly unreasonably, I have forbidden him from entering the kitchen while I am on this call. Brushing the sleep from my eyes, I run through the system in my head. Find the number. Dial in. Greet my fellow laughers. Giggle. Hang up. Have a shower. Go to work. Feel great.

    The first hurdle is negotiating the conference call system. Having to enter a pin so early in the morning befuddles me. The system asks me to leave my name, and I mutter 'Ailbhe' passive-aggressively. Abruptly, sounds begin to fade into my ears. Hee heee heeee heee HEEEE HEEEE HEEE HEEE. HO ho HO ho HO ho HO. This is the creepiest thing ever — like a scene from Are You Afraid of the Dark. I was anticipating a gentle introduction, and some hellos. This echo chamber of laughter is overwhelming, so much so that I forget to laugh. Instead, I sit on the line, breathing probably quite loudly, for four minutes. I have become a lurker.

    The next day, I have a plan. I will dial in for the final five minutes of the call. I will join the throng of laughter, rather than start it. Ring ring. I try to ignore the guffaw on the other line, and treat the laughter more like breathing than laughter. "I will do this for a minute", I resolve, as I mechanically ha ha ha ha.

    Before I notice it, it's been two minutes. My ha ha ha has have become more relaxed. I even genuinely laugh once or twice. On the way to to work, I see a dog peeking its head out of a car window, as if it is navigating. I laugh out loud — not a fnar under my breath. I WhatsApp my friend Muireann, "I do feel more relaxed, I think". "It's like wearing tight shoes", she responds. "You're so tense from listening to the laughter that you immediately feel relaxed afterward." Maybe she has a point. "Or you're just a dope". Oh.

    I decide to get in touch with Lotte Mikkelsen for a chat. She founded the U.K. Laughter Club in 2004, and then created the U.K. Telephone Laughter Club in September 2008. Now she's a master trainer and laughter ambassador in the U.K., after training with Madan Kataria. I ask her to tell me about my fellow laughers. "Most of the people, I know, and I recognise their laughs — because I've been chatting with them. Or know them personally", she explains. "But some of them I have no idea of who they are. There are about 35 people registered at the moment, and it's just a fraction of them who dial in every day."

    Lotte's from Denmark, which is where she first encountered Laughter Yoga. She doesn't have a holistic background; she originally worked in corporate technology companies. "Back in 1999, I went to a Laughter Club in Copenhagen, with a friend who kept pestering me to attend. I kept saying I didn't have time for it, as my daughter was a toddler at the time. But I attended, and it was just amazing, and I thought, I must do it". In 2002, she began to study holistic therapy, and to do one-on-one telephone laughter with a friend: "We laughed on the phone together three evenings a week".

    She's very much a laughter evangelist, and believes that practising Laughter Yoga has helped her own physical health, as well as her mental health. Following an MRI scan, Lotte's consultant diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis in 2008. Having lost a sister to the disease, it was a blow for Lotte. "I thought, My life is ending here", she explains. "And then I thought, That is not going to happen. And that's when I started the Telephone Laughter Club in 2008."

    Lotte has not relapsed since, and has not received any treatments for the illness. She believes that practising Laughter Yoga has kept her in remission. "I'm trying to raise the money to get a second scan to try and compare the results. To see if anything has really changed. I think it would be really interesting to see if this work has changed the brain cells and the brain chemistry in me", she explains.

    The second week begins and I take a bold step. I stay in bed and dial in. It has only taken a week for me to reach the wearing tracksuit bottoms phase of this phone relationship. I wonder if everyone else is calling from bed. That creeps me out a little. I grab the piece of paper with the conference pin on it. Even if I call the laughter hotline every day from now until the end of time, I will never remember the conference pin. Surprisingly, I am one of the first laughers! It's me and heee heee heee and ho ho ho. I wonder if people recognise me as haaa haaa haaaa?

    As the week goes on, the call becomes second nature to me. I no longer balk at saying my name (nor do I intentionally mutter it, in case someone on the call wants to steal my identity, which was a very real half-asleep 7 a.m. fear for a while). Nor does it take me a while to warm up to laugh. HAW HAW HAW, I bellow. HAW HAW HAW. Another caller joins the line, so it's the usual gang, plus me and the new person. HAW HAW HAW, I spout in their imagined direction.

    Week three. Life gets in way a bit. I am unwell. I call in sick to work and sleep through Laughter Club. Ha. Ha. Ha. I email Lotte, repentant. "Don't worry", she says. "You can just mute your phone and listen to the laughter. That's just as good". I feel slightly better. I am happy to test this hypothesis. The next day, I try to vary my laugh, going from a charming tinkle to a guffaw. I still can't manage to spend more than five minutes on the line, and I still can't manage to genuinely laugh. My goal for next week will be to try and laugh naturally. It's OK to HAW HAW HAW for five minutes, but it would be great to giggle.

    I am due to speak to a new joiner, Megan. It is her first week joining the hotline, but she's already a Laughter Yoga facilitator. That morning, I mute my phone and try and listen for a new laugh. I can't hear her. Maybe she's just as panicked as I was on the first day. I want to tell her it will all be OK.

    Later that day, Megan and I speak on the phone. She's 23 and based in Cardiff, and is a recent convert. "I did my first session last August, and absolutely loved it", she explains. "I was really burnt out from work, and I was really depressed. I thought, Right, let's just try something new completely". It was an instant hit. "The yoga class really gave me a new lease of life — a new sense of freedom. I found it quite liberating. I found I could laugh at things a lot easier. I literally came out of my first session, and I was like, 'I'm going to go and train. I don't know what this involves but I need to do this. I need this in my life'".

    Like Lotte, Megan doesn't come from a holistic background. "A lot of my friends are into energy healing and Reiki — I'm not quite there yet. I'm a bit on the fence", she laughs. "Family-wise, I come from such a busy family. And everything is so chaotic, and just stress stress stress all the time."

    Megan is especially interested in gibberish training. Gibberish is called "the inner spirit of laughter". Lotte touched on gibberish during our earlier chat, explaining, "Gibberish is one way of being frustrated without hurting. You know sometimes when you're having a conversation and you get heated up and you say something you regret instantly. So if you just express yourself in gibberish and go FLOORG! BEAHOU! SDNAKSLDLSA! then you don't say anything hurtful and you might get your frustration out. And the other person may just start laughing instead". Lotte explained that gibberish can be used in a corporate setting — where there's been a breakdown in communication. Megan is more interested in a different application.

    "A lot of Laughter Yoga teachers have practiced gibberish with young carers", she explains. "Speaking in gibberish, the young carers can express their emotions with no consequences. Young carers, have a lot of responsibility. They can just get it out of their system".

    I visit my parents that weekend, and tell them what I've learned about gibberish. They are both very interested. My brother joins in and they all have a conversation in gibberish. This is, I feel, not really the point. Later that evening, on the way to the theatre, there is a heated discussion as to whether we have parked in a cul de sac or a one-way street. "Express yourselves in gibberish now", I helpfully suggest.

    This does not go down well.

    It's the final week. Wake up, dial in, laugh. I listen for new laughs and comfortably chortle while I yawn and stretch. It all feels very natural now. During the week, I notice a new laugh. It's a bit like a frog's ribbit. Herp herp hchhh herp. I feel disappointed in myself that I haven't managed to laugh naturally once during the experiment, and that I haven't been able to laugh for the full 10 minutes. I realise I have been spending the month competing against myself, to best a challenge that I too have set myself. Of course I'll be disappointed, because I am the one setting the rules.

    I'm interested to see if I've become happier during the experiment. I've certainly laughed a lot more than normal — at TV, at jokes, in the pub. And just in general. Through a series of unfortunate events, my colleague Scott gets locked out of his email at work for an hour. I belly laugh. "I'm sorry", I giggle. "It's just so tragic". Still laughing, I send an email around the office: "Do you think I've been happier this month? Genuine question". Of the four people who reply, they agree.

    I dig a little deeper. There has been little study done on the impact of Laughter Yoga on general health, but I find a study in the January/February 2014 issue of the Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research. Granted, it's a small sample size — 38 male students who underwent two, one-hour sessions of Laughter Yoga for a month. But the conclusions drawn seem positive. The sessions had "a positive effect on students' general health and improved the signs of physical and sleep disorders, lowered anxiety and depression, and promoted their social function".

    So, on the final morning, I walk around my kitchen, turning on the coffee pot and drawing back the curtain, enjoying the first weak morning rays of sunshine. The laughs come down the line one by one, almost gracefully guffawing, chortling, and giggling. Some laughs are adorable, like the tee hee hee. Some are undignified, like the ribbit. I just relax and join in, and laugh. I had planned to stay on the call for the full 10 minutes to complete the arc, and create a fitting end to this grand narrative, but after three, I happily log out. Serenity, rather than perseverance, is the point.

    Audio editing by Julia Furlan