Hypnotherapist Dick Yu (余狄夫) has a mission that seems unthinkable to many Hong Kongers: He wants to make the Asian financial hub’s 7 million residents laugh more.
“Hong Kong people don’t laugh because they are under constant pressure to make more money, to make life better,” said Yu, who has founded 11 Laughter Clubs in the territory since 2007.
“People get worried easily because housing is so expensive, the cost of living is getting higher and people are concerned about whether they can keep their job,” he added.
The 35-year-old trained hypnotherapist set up Hong Kong’s first laughter club in 2007, after he discovered the concept of laughter yoga — made popular as an exercise routine by Indian physician Madan Kataria in 1995.
Since then hundreds of heavy-hearted Hong Kongers have signed up for the free classes, a sign, experts say, of the city’s underlying health and social problems.
“When you laugh, you’re happier, you become positive and everything else will become better,” Yu says, after a one-hour laughing session in a park.
“Ho ho, ha ha ha,” the group of 30 students recite.
They combine the exercise with deep yogic breathing, give each other high-fives, clap and waddle like penguins, all in the name of laughter.
The fake laughter very soon breaks into the real thing, demonstrating one of the core principles of laughter yoga: Laughter has physiological benefits whether it is fake or real.
As the adage “laughter is the best medicine” goes, researchers credit belly laughs as a recipe for a healthy heart. It helps expand the lining of the blood vessels to increase blood flow, reduces stress hormones and boosts the immune system.
A UK study last year showed that 15 minutes of laughter increased the level of pain tolerance by about 10 percent, as the action helps to trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s naturally produced painkillers.
“It was a bit awkward in the beginning when we tried to fake the laughter with the ‘ho ho, ha ha ha,’ but after a while you can tell the difference and you feel more relaxed,” said Kaman Wong at one of Yu’s classes.
The 37-year-old student joined the laughter club two years ago when he was a supervisor at a food processing firm.
“The work was stressful. There was a lot of overtime work, I had to deal with many workers. If anything went wrong I was responsible, but I’ve learned how to laugh away all the stress,” he said.
However, on top of his work problems, Wong said the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Hong Kong itself was getting him down.
“Everyone is like a balloon that is about to explode in Hong Kong. If you smile at me, I wouldn’t know how to react to that. I think there are just a lot of barriers among Hong Kongers that we need to break,” he said.
Social scientists say the laughter club boom highlights the stress faced by many residents of a densely populated territory which groans under extremes of inequality, soaring property prices and cramped living spaces.
The number of people seeking psychiatric treatment at Hong Kong’s public hospitals leapt 20 percent between 2007 and last year to 184,087, according to the Hospital Authority.
Hong Kong’s suicide rate rose from 11.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 1990 to 14.6 in 2009, WHO figures show. That is higher than in the US, the UK and Australia, but lower than South Korea.