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World Laughter Day: How a Laughing Fit Sparked an International Movement

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Can forced laughter create real laughter?

Strangely, the answer is yes. Yes, you can literally fake your way to an authentic laughing fit, or perhaps a fit of embarrassment if it doesn't work out well.

This is intriguing because it implies you can laugh anytime you want. And there may even be science to back that up.

If it weren't possible to laugh on command, the American Laughing Championships, which I hosted in April, would never have happened. But somehow they did. The Mayor of San Diego, Bob Filner, even opened the event proclaiming, "Today is contagious laughter day," to what sounded like contagious laughter.

On April 6, the San Diego Westin Crystal Ballroom filled up with folks coming to see people from over a dozen states compete to be crowned the most contagious "laugher" in America. This was the first ever national event and the winner would be crowned "Best Laugher in America 2013," a strangely coveted title.

If you looked strictly at the time involved, people laughed on and off for a good 80 minutes. The chortled, they guffawed, the fell down laughing. But shouldn't a laughter contest last at most maybe five to 10 minutes? How could people laugh for over an hour? Or worse: How could people listen to people trying to laugh for over an hour?

"Wasn't this just forced laughter?" various radio and TV hosts would invariably ask Julie Ostrow, who won the championship.

"Not exactly," she said. "I made myself laugh by laughing."

And she did. Laughing contests are measured by their contagious effect on their audience. So without real laughter, she could not have won.

How did she do it?

Well. Here's the secret. You can trigger laughter spontaneously, without jokes by following a set of behavioral rules. The most common sound for laughter is the familiar sound: "Ha ha ha." I know it sounds a bit ridiculous, but a team of British neuroscientists determined that even remote Northern Namibian tribes, which have had virtually no contact with the outside world, use this sound to laugh, meaning it may be a human universal. The "ha, ha, ha," it appears, is in our DNA."

This phenomenon has been observed by anyone who did that camp trick of having people lie on each other's stomachs and then set off a laughing fit.

Those who study laughter suggest this contagious laugh originated with the panting sound of playing mammals. If you make that "ha ha ha" sound while smiling and while looking a few people in the eye, you will probably burst in to laughter and they may too. You can sometimes even do it alone. If you don't believe me, give it your best shot in the mirror.

Why didn't anyone notice this before? Well there's a powerful social bias against forced laughter which is seen as manipulative and superficial. And making yourself laugh has strong association with, well, insanity.

Just prior to the main event at the American Laughing Championships, all the contestants we're shown this simple trick: If you inhale, and breath out energetically with a "ha ha ha" you're likely to trigger real laughter, especially if you're standing nervously in front of a crowd. The contestants did this with diabolical laughs, snort laughs and even classic Alabama Kneeslappers.

There may even be a scientific basis for this. The Facial Feedback Hypothesis theory is a well-known theory in psychological sciences.

It goes right back to Willlam James, who noted that people can provoke an authentic emotion by acting out the behavior of that emotion. Another way to say this is you can get the feeling of smiling, just by smiling, even if you have nothing to smile about. Scientists have tested this by having people place pencils or sticks between their teeth which induces an artificial smile. Even though it's artificial my most measures, the test subjects are really smiling and often get a good feeling out of it. Some burst into laughter.

An even weirder aspect of this is the apparent effect was revealed with more recent studies of Botox on the human face. Because Botox inhibits the facial musculature from creating certain expressions like deep frowns and intense smiles, the facial feedback hypothesis would suggest that people with Botox in their faces might be inhibited from feeling the accompanying emotions. It turns out to be true.

A breakthrough 2008 study at Northwestern University in Chicago showed that people who had Botox treatments in the areas related to smiling and frowning had measurably less of those feelings. Here's how the researchers said it: "...botulinum toxin may dampen some positive expressions like the true smile, which requires activity of the orbicularis oculi, a muscle also relaxed after toxin injections."

In fact a study this years in Cardiff, Wales further research suggests that regular Botox treatments cause depression, simply because it inhibits smiling.

So if the facial feedback hypothesis works for smiling, why not for laughter?

Well an entire movement has has been built on it.

In 1995, Madan Kataria, a family doctor in India, used the very idea to develop Laughter Yoga. "I was reading a Psychology textbook about how acting the emotion, creates the emotion and I thought it might apply to laughter," he told me in an interview.

Kataria would then suggest that a group of friends start a laughter club by acting like they were laughing. Apparently they simply exploded into laughter. That was the birth of Laughter Yoga a movement, which allows people to reap the health benefits of laughter and has spread to over 60 countries.

In fact, this Sunday has been proclaimed World Laughter Day, an annual event where people gather in public places to simply laugh. In parks and squares across Canada and the world this Sunday, Laughter aficionados will meet to laugh en masse, including the first ever Irish Laughter Championships in Galway, Ireland.

There will likely be no comedians in attendance. And the only way this might be possible is because of this bizarre aspect of human nature that has essentially been hiding in plain sight. You can make yourself laugh by simply laughing.

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