Naturally Balanced > Ecotherapy in practice > Therapists > Gelotology – laughter therapy

Gelotology – laughter therapy

Published: 10/01/2023
Kazimierz Kopczyński
In my scientific and popularization activities , as well as teaching, I preach the idea of a holistic approach to Man, Earth and the Universe. I am an enthusiast of ecophilosophy, which points to the spiritual and aesthetic dimension of Nature.

Date of the last update: 10.01.2023

A smile costs less than electricity and gives more light.

Archibald, Joseph Cronin

People believe that to be successful you have to get up early. Well, no – you have to get up in a good mood.

Marcel Achard

Table of Contents:

  1. Laughter in a philosophical and sociological aspect
  2. Theoretical foundations of gelotology
  3. The physiology of laughter
  4. Healing laughter – how to learn it?
  5. Summary

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Laughter in a philosophical and sociological aspect

According to Kant, three things are given to man to defend against the adversities of life: hope, sleep and laughter (see Kant 1986). „Laughter is an offensive weapon, crying is a defensive one” – this is how the essence of laughter is expressed by the contemporary Polish aphorist A. Majewski (2000). The ancient philosopher Zeno of Kition says: „When you laugh, the whole world laughs with you. When you cry, you cry alone” (see 1001 Ancient Aphorisms 1996).

These few thoughts above beautifully express the philosophical, social and psychological meaning of laughter, at the same time showing its special value in human life. Such eminent thinkers as Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Bergson, Kolakowski made laughter the subject of their research and consideration. Some of them considered laughter to be a privilege and a distinguishing mark of man, and even the deepest essence of humanity.

Kant (1986) defined laughter as follows: “Laughter is an affect that arises from the sudden transformation of tense expectation into nothingness. This very transformation, which is certainly nothing joyful for the intellect, nevertheless indirectly produces a very lively joy for a moment. The cause, then, must lie in the effect an image has on the body, and in its reciprocal action on the mind, not because the image is objectively gratifying, but only because, as a mere interplay of images, it brings about the balance of the vital forces in body” (p. 271).

Schopenhauer (1995) thinks similarly: “Concepts whose inconsistencies in perception make us laugh, therefore, belong either to someone else or to ourselves. In the first case, we laugh at others, and in the second, we often feel a pleasant, at least funny, surprise. Hence children and savages laugh at the slightest, even unpleasant, adventures, if they were unexpected, that is, they proved their previous misconceptions. As a rule, laughter is a pleasant state: the perception of the inconsistency of the thought with the observed, i.e. with the real, gives us joy, and we willingly give ourselves over to the convulsive emotion that this perception aroused” (p. 36). Schopenhauer adds that due to the lack of reason, i.e. general concepts, the animal, as well as for speaking, is also incapable of laughing. However, the dog – according to Schopenhauer man’s only friend – has a certain analogous activity, characteristic only of him, namely a kind and fundamentally honest wagging.

Bergson (1995), who devoted a separate dissertation to laughter, considers laughter to be an intellectual reaction to the contrast that arises when human behavior reveals the features of a mechanism that is opposed to human purposeful, living activity.

Kołakowski’s (1999) reflections in his essay entitled “On Laughter” are interesting. He points out that humor and laughter are possible in dangerous and oppressive situations – there is humor among soldiers at war, in prison, during the occupation. It is important that there is still hope. Then stress in the face of danger can be partly relieved by showing the comic sides of the situation. Kołakowski recalls his friend, a Lodz Jew, who survived Auschwitz and then spent decades telling jokes and humorous stories, and a few days before his death, when Kołakowski spoke to him on the phone, he broke down and told him a joke.

Kołakowski (1999) writes that even in a funeral situation, which in itself does not provoke laughter, a certain dose of humor is possible. It seems that misfortune can somehow be mitigated even in the saddest rite, when part of its seriousness is taken from it. Kołakowski quotes the following anecdote: A dying Jewish woman says to her husband: “Listen, Pinkus, I am dying now and I am asking you, when the funeral is over, go with my mother as if you were best friends. I know you hate her, but you have to pretend at my funeral.” “Well, Sara”, replies the husband. If you want it, I will do it, but I say that I will not enjoy this funeral” (p. 36).

It is worth recalling here the Romanian thinker E. Cioran, who knew the tragic side of the Jew as rarely anyone else, described brilliantly in the essays recently translated into Polish (see Cioran 1995, 1996, 1999). Cioran asked a friend who had become depressed and suicidal in his 80s when he asked: “Can you still laugh?” After receiving an affirmative answer, he told him that if so, he should not part with life yet. As long as we can laugh, writes Cioran, even if we have thousands of reasons to despair, we must go on, laughter is, in his opinion, the only justification for life, the great justification for a Jew.

A sociological study of the comic was made by K. Żygulski (1976). The author showed the social significance of laughter and its role in the development of a child. A child’s laughter is a form of participation in the circle in which the child grows up. It is an important means of communication, communicating about oneself, emotional and intellectual contact with the environment. Growing up, the child reacts with laughter to what was previously frightening, they are amused by certain phenomena, including the behavior of adults, to which they react with laughter, interpreting them in their own way, often fantasizing. The social aspects of children’s laughter are also interestingly shown in the works of A. J. Chapman (1979), E. Hurlock (1985) and M. Dudzikowa (1996).

Therefore, laughter in a human being – from childhood to old age – can play a huge role. Therefore, it should be present at home, kindergarten, school and university, but also – and perhaps above all – in a hospital, medical clinic or rehabilitation facility.

Humor is something that allows you to laugh despite everything, says O. Marquard in the afterword to his book, and laughter is a little theodicy (Marquard, 1994).

Theoretical foundations of gelotology

Every disease, including cancer, has two aspects: it is a local process, taking place where its symptoms occur, but it is also a process that must be considered as a whole against the background of the whole organism.

Therefore, each disease should be treated by combating it both in its local symptoms and from the holistic side. Laughter is a therapy that positively affects both systemic and symptomatic treatment.

Man is a psychosomatic unity. This is an undisputed truth today. However, many modern physicians, especially the so-called specialists do not understand this obvious truth. And yet already in antiquity Plato said: “It would be madness to want to treat only the body without healing the spirit.”

The correct interpretation of the understanding of the essence of psychosomatics was probably given by Spinoza. It is commonly believed that the mind affects the body, and somatic processes affect our mind and mental activity. But this reasoning goes much further. Mind and body are two aspects of a human being, just as they are two aspects of the universe (nature, nature). So it would be unity in the strictest sense of the word. According to Spinoza, there is only one being manifested through various attributes. Nature is both extended and intelligible. Man is characterized by both physical structure (extended) and thinking.

Does our thought affect our body? Our thought, feeling, emotion (what is mental, spiritual) is also a physical (somatic) manifestation considered from the point of view of the attribute of extension. In order to bring this philosophical idea, which may be fundamental to understanding both man and the world, let us refer to a certain, albeit very simplified, analogy. Heads and tails are two sides of the same coin. Whenever we toss a coin, we toss heads and tails at the same time. There is no tails alone or heads alone. Each toss affects both sides of the coin (both aspects). Our thoughts and affects are inseparable from what used to be called physical health (see Spinoza 1954, Della Rocca 1996, Hoffman, Hochapfel 1995, Kopczyński 1994, 1997, 2001).

As N. Bevin rightly notes, however, joyful thinking is much more than positive thinking. When thinking positively, instead of negative terms, we choose only affirmative ones, but it only consists in verbalizing the positive feelings and emotions aroused in ourselves. With joyful thinking, we must do something else – namely, achieve diaphragm-shaking laughter.

N. Bevin distinguishes four degrees of laughter:

  1. „breath of joy” – creates the possibility of maintaining mental relaxation, it can go into a permanent state. As a basic degree in treatment, it is of inestimable importance. It even surpasses the second degree, which is known as giggles, because it is a sincere expression of deep, spiritual, joyful peace, while giggles, although stronger, may not be so true because they are conventionally motivated;
  2. giggle – is the threshold for silent laughter, when this laughter grows, facial expressions change and only then can acoustic impressions be registered;
  3. laughter with acoustic symptoms – there is a stepless transition from quiet to loud laughter – full-throat laughter, accompanied by weaker or stronger convulsive body movements;
  4. laughing to tears – acoustic impressions are less strong than in the third degree, the laughing person is shaken by strong, involuntary body movements.

With therapeutic laughter, the most important for us are stages one, three and four. The first degree can lead to a permanent state, when a person becomes smiling every day, a smile accompanies him in various life situations. The importance of a smile in a person’s life and his contacts with people is emphasized by e.g. the attention of O. Postel-Vinay (1983).

The fourth degree is of particular importance for our health. One minute of jolting laughter equals 45 minutes of relaxation.

The physiology of laughter

The theory of the eminent researcher of laughter, S. Feuerabendt, states that during laughter, substances that improve the properties of blood enter our bloodstream, and that the endocrine glands, heart, liver and spleen experience a significant increase in activity. Intestinal movements increase, the immune system works more efficiently, the characteristics of muscle tension change, and above all, the mental attitude of the laughing person is significantly consolidated.

N. Bevin uses and confirms the above theory in his research. He writes: “Laughter has a positive effect on the entire respiratory process, that is, on ventilation, perfusion (blood supply) and diffusion (exchange of respiratory gases). Through this, we achieve a reduction or even complete elimination of chronic stress syndromes, the most serious of which is fear. In a similar way, the psychovegetative syndrome disappears or is reduced to a minimum. Nervous homeostasis is maintained, both in terms of mental equilibrium and stability within the neural environment, which in turn positively influences general defense functions and immune systems” (p. 30).

Psychoneuroimmunological studies confirm the importance of mental factors, in particular the impact of stress on the body’s immunity (see Hankała 1993). Laughter also increases the production of histamines – intracellular hormones. N. Bevin also refers to the research of H. Haken, who, together with his colleagues, deals with the chemical-psychic interaction called synergetics. As a result of laughter, positive changes also occur at the molecular level.

As can be seen from the above, very brief review of research, gelotology appears to be a very wide-ranging field that can change the way doctors think and act and cause their cooperation with psychologists and educators to go much further than at present. N. Bevin – an ardent supporter and promoter of gelotology – hopes that thanks to laughter, our medical care, which is close to collapse, will recover.

Healing laughter – how to learn it?

Increasingly, medicine and psychotherapy are now discovering laughter (see Tyrkey 1996). For example, patients in hospitals are shown cheerful films. Slapstick comedies – Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Flip and Flap and many other classics of the genre will make you laugh until you cry. We learn to laugh by laughing. However, we must first learn to distinguish therapeutic laughter from empty laughter, which contributes nothing. Not all laughter is healthy and healing.

“In order to arrive at healing laughter,” writes N. Bevin, “we must, in addition to relaxation, develop the view that there is a frequent disproportion between the expectation and the fulfillment of this expectation. If, for example, an actor standing on stage suddenly notices a dog with a wig and a hat on his head looking at him in the audience, there are basically two possible behaviors: either he laughs, treating it as a delicious joke, or he becomes worried and sad that someone dared to making such a prank. Our task, of course, is to strive for the first model” (p. 145).

Laughter should be primarily joyful. Learn to experience the world as an intellectual and aesthetic phenomenon, be able to admire the harmony of nature, enjoy getting to know the world and people, enjoy their successes with others, look forward to the future with hope – this is the source of energy and joyful laughter. The thought of the English writer and physician A. J. Cronin quoted as the motto of this study can be understood figuratively and literally. A smile is indeed a source of light. The sun illuminates the Earth on which we live, but the glow and ray on our own way of life brings us and other people’s smile. Each of us is a part of nature. Arousing love for nature is the first step to shaping a joyful perception of the world and other people. This love must be instilled in the child from the earliest years of his life. Kindergarten and school can play a significant role in this. Properly conducted environmental education – which unfortunately is rare – aims to develop a child’s love of nature as its main goal. It is not so important that the child gets to know nature, but that it loves learning about it. The joy of learning is the greatest effect that a teacher can achieve in his work with another human being – a didactic and therapeutic effect at the same time.

This study was conceived primarily as an inspiration and encouragement for educators to explore the secrets of gelotology and use laughter therapy in their educational and rehabilitation practice. In Poland, this type of therapy is still little known and used. Below I provide quite extensive literature on the subject, which – I think – will facilitate deeper understanding of the subject. Also worth recommending is the film “Patch Adams”, which shows the practical aspects of gelotology in an excellent and profound way.

Explore more: Breathing exercises – examples, application


In conclusion, I would like to quote a parable from The Book of Meditation Stories (see de Mello, 1998): The Master was in a melancholy mood, so his disciples wanted him to tell them about the successive stages of his journey towards holiness. “In the beginning, God led me by the hand to the Land of Action, and I lived there for several years. Then God returned and took me to the Land of Sorrow; I lived there until my heart was cleansed of every immoderate attachment. It was then that I found myself in the Land of Love, whose flames devoured what was left of my self. This led me to the Land of Silence, where the mystery of life and death was closed to my astonished eyes.”

Was that the end of your search?” they asked. “No,” said the Master. One day God said, “Today I will take you to the innermost sanctuary of the temple, to the very heart of God. And I was led to the Land of Laughter.”


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Kazimierz Kopczyński
In my scientific and popularization activities , as well as teaching, I preach the idea of a holistic approach to Man, Earth and the Universe. I am an enthusiast of ecophilosophy, which points to the spiritual and aesthetic dimension of Nature. I am currently a researcher at Jan Kochanowski University in Kielce and at the Higher School of National Economy in Kutno. I graduated from the department of psychology at the University of Lodz, specialty- clinical psychology. I am a graduate of postgraduate studies in Geology at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Ecology and Environmental Protection at the University of Lodz, , Medical Law, Bioethics and Medical Sociology at the University of Warsaw , and Geriatrics and Long-Term Care at the Jagiellonian University. I am a member of the Polish Botanical Society, the Polish Mycological Society, the Polish Copernicus Society of Naturalists and the Polish Suicidological Society.