It's said to be the best medicine and increasingly laughter is being harnessed as a form of therapy and stress release. Canvas' clown story took a look at red-nosed professional clowns charged with easing the atmosphere of children's wards in New Zealand hospitals. Evidently laughter offers more than just the feel good factor; research has shown it can reduce pain by releasing endorphins, boost the immune system and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Last month in Twelve Questions with Oscar Kightley the subject said, "I try to laugh on a daily basis." So exactly how is that daily, by prescription, laughter achieved? By pulling funny faces in the mirror each morning? Tickling your funny bone? Dating a comedian? Reading a humorous book? Watching a rom-com? Visiting a comedy club?
In fact, there are more cutting edge ways of guaranteeing a healthy dose of laughter. According to laughteryoga.org.nz there are laughter clubs throughout the country including five in the Auckland region where the aim is "to teach you how to laugh for no reason." And at a recent conference in Sydney, my husband's firm invited some kind of professional laughter facilitator instead of the usual guest speaker. The session required the attendees to laugh madly at each other. Some of them found it, well, awkward. Synthetic laughter just might be the new group hug.
But surely in laughing for no reason you run the risk of devaluing the authentic expression of mirth. Manufactured laughter seems a contradiction in terms. That may be so yet an article from The Guardian entitled Laughter Therapy says that the body can't distinguish between real and fake laughter so health benefits accrue regardless of how forced that chuckle actually is.
Call me old-fashioned but laughter on demand strikes me as cold and soulless. My most memorable laughing sessions strike just like a commando raider - seemingly out of nowhere and when I least expect it. A couple of years ago I read a book by US comedian Chelsea Handler called Are you there, Vodka? It's me, Chelsea. I was trundling through it only mildly amused until I happened upon a recount of the interaction between her boyfriend and her dog.
I found it hilarious. One page took me about half-an-hour to finish. I'd read a sentence, laugh, cry, put the book down, slap my thighs, gulp for air and laugh some more. Finally I'd compose myself, wipe the tears away, pick up the book and read another sentence - at which point the entire process would begin again. I discovered stomach muscles I never knew existed.
In the interests of research and in case I needed a true belly laugh in the future I held onto this book and read the chapter in question about a year later. And honestly, I couldn't understand why I'd found it so funny the first time. It was kind of amusing but it wasn't hilarious. Perhaps novelty and freshness are crucial components of spontaneous laughter.
I suspect that a sense of guilt may also fuel a good laugh. For me at least, feeling that I really shouldn't find something funny, either because it involves someone else's misfortune or a non-PC take on a subject, can sometimes make it seem even funnier. Perversely, the flames of laughter can also be fuelled by the realisation that the source of the humour isn't actually that funny when you really think about it. Laughing in inappropriate forums or at inopportune times is also likely to render the chortles unstoppable - as Hilary Barry recently discovered during a news bulletin on Radio Live.
So these may be the ingredients for an authentic laugh: freshness, spontaneity, an unexpected source and a confronting subject mixed up with a guilty conscience and a dash of irreverence. As contagious as the common cold, laughter can be organic and naturally occurring or artificially derived. I know which version I prefer.