This article offers a review of laughter therapy history.

Once upon a time

0 AD to 1959

I am not really interested in what philosophers had to say on laughter and humor throughout the ages so let’s skip that part. I’ve referenced what I believe are the most important quotes on laughter that were made in the past 2,000 years here. Many books were published on the topic of laughter understood as humor but nothing that had a societal impact as far as I am aware.

The 1960s

Public interest in laughter therapy started to develop in the 1960s and grew from there. This was also a time when the dominance of humor as the main avenue to laughter was increasingly challenged.

Dr. William F. Fry, a professor of Psychology at Stanford University, California, was the first scientist to suggest in 1964 that laughter was a suitable field of study and the first to apply for public funding. However, this was at at time when the medical community held that the human nervous system was entirely cut off from the immune system (read more), so to claim that laughter had any health benefits was to make a claim without evidence. It was also during the Vietnam War and all research projects were put on the back burner anyways due to severe budgetary restraints. Undeterred, he pursued his interest on an informal, unfunded basis and published a number of landmark studies on the physiological processes that occur during laughter. He became the first self-proclaimed Gelotologist (an expert in the science of laughter, from the Greek root gelos, to laugh.)

Norman Cousins (1915-1990), longtime editor of the Saturday Review, global peacemaker, receiver of hundreds of awards including the UN Peace Medal and nearly 50 honorary doctorate degrees, raised a lot of public awareness about the healing power of laughter and positive emotions following his miraculous 1964 “laughter recovery” from a fatal illness, ankylosing spondylitis (a rare form of degenerative arthritis). He claimed that 10 minutes of belly rippling laughter would give him two hours of pain-free sleep, where previously nothing, not even morphine, could help him. His story baffled the scientific community and inspired a number of research projects. His 1979 book Anatomy of an Illness is a classic.

AATH, ISHS. Humor scholars started to meet formally and discuss findings at international conferences starting in 1976. The American Association for Therapeutic Humor was founded in 1987, and the formation of the International Society for Humor Studies (based in Europe) followed in 1988. Both of these organizations unite several hundred professionals interested in integrating humor into a variety of therapeutic modalities. Together they have published hundreds of articles on the health benefits of laughter, and their members have written many books and spoken at numerous conferences. The public education work they have done is simply phenomenal.

The research scientists

Dr. Lee S. Berk, an immunologist at Loma Linda University’s School of Allied Health and Medicine, has studied the effects of mirthful laughter on the regulation of hormones since the 1980s. Berk and his colleagues found that laughter helps the brain regulate the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. They also discovered a link between laughter and the production of anti-bodies and endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers. Even the expectation that something funny is coming suffices to bring about positive effects, reports Dr. Berk.

Dr. Mickael Millerdirector of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, showed that laughter is linked to the healthy function of blood vessels. His studies found that laughter causes the tissue that forms the inner lining of blood vessels (the endothelium) to expand in order to increase blood flow, while stress has the opposite effect, constricting blood vessels and reducing blood flow.

Dr. Ramon Mora-Ripoll (MD, PhD), a public health expert from Spain, developed an interest in humor and laughter after experiencing first-hand the positive impact laughter had on people’s health, moods and attitude in his own workplace. He first published a handbook on laughter medicine/therapy, then went on to write numerous journal articles on therapeutic laughter, including simulated laughter, his current area of interest and research.

Geneticist Kazuo Murakami showed that laughter therapy is an efficient, low-cost medical treatment that can cut healthcare costs by as much as 23%.

Read more about the science of laughter and its many published clinical studies.

The innovators

Shri Baheti, a retired Indian businessman, took on the teaching of Hasya Yoga (Laughter Yoga) as a retirement project and started to advocate and promote social laughter clubs in Jaipur, India, in 1970. His work never really gained momentum outside of his state.

Laughter Therapy History: Annette GoodheartDr. Annette Goodheart (1935-2011), a psychologist from Santa Barbara, California, specialized in laughter therapy starting in the late 1960s and was the first to create a theoretical framework for the use of voluntary simulated laughter. She created a whole set of techniques on how to use laughter to release (and thereby provide relief from) strong or repressed emotions. Her book “Laughter Therapy” is a good read. See We’ve briefly explained how she worked here.

Osho (1931-1990) was an Indian mystic and spiritual teacher that had a notable impact on Western spirituality as well as New Age thought. In 1988 he introduced the Mystic Rose Meditation, a three-week process involving voluntary simulated laughter, tears and silence. The first week involves three hours of daily laughing, non-stop and for no reason, starting with a Yahoo! The second week is for crying, also non-stop for three full hours; and the third week is for active silence. Thousands participated over the following years.

Marí Cruz Garcia independently developed her own concept of “Conscious Laughter” in the early 1980s, created her own laughter school, started to train Laughter Therapists in 1990 and continues to do so. She lives in Spain and only teaches in Spanish. See

Joy and play advocates

Viola Spolin (1906-1994) was an important innovator of the American theater in the 20th century, and is often referred to as the mother of improvisational theater. She developed scores of games that unleashed creativity, unlocked the individual’s capacity for creative self-expression… and prompted much laughter both for the participants and the audience. She indirectly influenced lots of people to attend comedy clubs to get their regular dose of belly laughter.

The “New Games” movement emerged in the late 1960s and built on Viola Spolin’s work by introducing a completely new genre of games focused on togetherness, non-aggression, non-competitiveness and the enjoyment of playing. It taught that by cooperating in play, we learn to live together better. The games weren’t really new. What was new was the spirit in which they were played ─ a spirit in which fun is more important than winning, and the players are more important than the game. It was very influential and offered a new direction for traditional sports, physical education, and recreation.

Dr. Hunter (Patch) Adams committed his life, starting in the early 1970s while attending medical school to bring fun and laughter back into the hospital world and put into practice the idea that “healing should be a loving human interchange, not a business transaction.” Unrelated but around the same time, professional clowns from the not-for-profit Big Apple Circus started to do hospital visits. They slowly developed a strong training program for therapeutic hospital clowns and made it officially public in 1986. Their message and techniques spread worldwide over the following years. In 1998 the Hollywood feature film on Patch Adams starring Robin Williams gave the world of therapeutic hospital clowns an unprecedented level of exposure and public recognition.

A new generation

Steve Wilson is a psychologist from Ohio, USA, who developed a passion for laughter and humor starting in the 1970s and brought the concept of Laughter Clubs to the USA in the late 1990s. He is the founder of World Laughter Tour and has trained thousands of Certified Laughter Leaders in North America and beyond into a very thorough program that incorporate laughter exercises, non-competitive games, music, movement, creative arts, positive activity interventions, and neuro-sciences.

Dr. Madan Kataria is an Indian family physician who reinvented Laughter Yoga in 1995 with the help of his wife (this technique had already been taught for 25 years about 1,000 miles North of where they lived). The social free laughter clubs that they promoted slowly became an international grassroots phenomenon.

Sebastian Gendry is a laughterpreneur who was an early adopter of Laughter Yoga, a technique he helped to introduce in North America, Russia, Palestine and other countries. He is the creator of Laughter Wellness, a complete and fast-acting well-being program that promotes healthy living throughout people’s lifespan.

Corinne Cosseron is a French journalist who fell in love with the world of laughter in the early 2000 and in time created the Rigologie method. She played a major role in spreading awareness about Laughter Therapy in French-speaking countries.

Many more people have, too, imagined their own laughter methods. All these fall in the loosely defined category of laughter therapy, or therapeutic laughter. While all use similar techniques, why and how they use them is very different. The question is not to know which is better, but which is better for you and what you want to achieve.

Related links

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