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Laughter

Last week (10-16 May 2021) was mental health awareness week. It is an annual event that creates an opportunity for the whole of the UK to focus on achieving good mental health. The event has grown to become one of the biggest awareness weeks, across the UK and globally, and it aims to highlight the things that can affect our mental health, as well as the things we can do to promote good mental health.  We are well aware that people are normally more comfortable discussing their physical health and accept that there are things within in their control that can help to promote good physical health. Even though it is natural for it to fluctuate, we are still less comfortable talking about our mental health, particularly when we are experiencing difficulties with it.  And we tend to think less about what we can do to support our mental health.

This year, the Mental Health Foundation, chose the theme of ‘The Power of Nature’ as its focus for Mental Health Week.  There is plenty of research showing that connecting with the natural world promotes good mental health; all that is required is for you to notice the natural world, rather than rushing through it.  As the pace of life slowed down during the pandemic, many people reported the benefits they experienced through spending more time outside.  But a conversation I had with Mrs Evans, senior deputy head, made me think about something else that can promote good mental health and which we shouldn’t neglect.

For all of us, the last 12 months have been unusual and sometimes difficult - life has felt really quite serious at times. At the start of term, Mrs Evans and I were reflecting on this and the fact that there was still so much to do and she said to me “We need to laugh more”.  Rather than it being just a passing comment, I took this on board because Mrs Evans and I do tend to have a good sense of humour and love what we do, so laughter and happiness usually comes quite naturally.  But amidst the remote learning, lateral flow test organisation, return to school planning and DfE guidance, we realised that - somewhere along the way - we hadn’t been laughing as much as we ordinarily would.  Interestingly other colleagues brought up similar ideas, recognising that life needed more fun it.  All of which led to me looking at the power of laughter to support our mental health.

There are many urban myths that have been accepted as fact surrounding the frequency with which children laugh compared to adults but it is likely to be true that children do laugh more times per day. Whatever the facts, most of our laugh out loud moments come as part of social interaction and so it is perhaps not surprising that in recent times, with far less social interaction than normal, we’ve also laughed rather less than normal. When was the last time you had a really good laugh?  And do you ever laugh until you cry (this is less weird than it sounds when you understand the origin of laugher)?  A joyous fact about laughter is that it really is catching - hence the use of canned laughter in sitcoms – so being around friends who are laughing can so often make you feel like laughing and lift your mood too.

One of the reasons that laughter can be so good for our mental health is that it has some very positive affects on the body.  It has been shown to reduce the levels of a number of hormones associated with stress in the blood, and can also alter dopamine and serotonin activity, the low levels of which are associated with depression. Laughter releases endorphins of our feel good hormones. Laugher probably evolved in humans before we began to speak, and it is thought that it could have been signal for friendly rather than aggressive interactions, as well as being a way of expressing relief after the passing of danger (which might explain why, after certain stressful situations, people can be a little hysterical with laughter).

So if laughter is so good for us, how should we go about bringing more of it into our lives? There are some obvious ways such as watching a comedy programme or film that you know has made you laugh before, or reading a book that has made you laugh out loud. When I was growing up, my ‘go to’ book was ‘Rosy Is My Relative’ by Gerald Durrell – a farcical, ridiculous story that helped me through some darker days in my teenage years. The social nature of laugher means that reminiscing with friends over silly things you’ve done, or heard, or sharing ridiculous memes can be just as effective.  During lockdown some of the things that went viral – such as the lawyer joining a court hearing via Zoom while stuck with a cute cat filter – must have been indicative of our collective hunger for humour, silliness and laughter.  More radical, and I’m not sure whether I would be able to throw off my inhibitions to try this, is laughter yoga. Scientists have discovered that simulated laughter - going through the motions of laughter - is at least as effective if not more so than spontaneous laughter in bringing about the positive effects on our mental health. Laughter yoga relies upon simulated laughter and breathing techniques, which apparently turn into spontaneous laughter when practiced in a group.

So have Mrs Evans and I laughed more in the last few weeks? Surprisingly, and despite everything that is still going on, we have. This is largely because, having realised how important it is, we have made a conscious effort to share moments of amusement, which have then turned into laughter, and we have looked out for the funny moments in our daily lives.  As we all continue to make our way back to a more normal life, even though there will still be difficult moments to navigate, let’s try to find the things that make us laugh. It might help more than you think…and your laughter could well become a bright spot in someone else’s day. 

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.  Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey