Merv Neal – and how he laughed his way back to life

Merv Neal

When a doctor told Merv Neal he had weeks to live, he started to laugh. Ever since, laughter and its healing qualities have become his mission.

Merv Neal is a Laughter Yoga teacher, researcher and mentor who is dedicated to helping people use laughter as a psychological and physical antidote to stress, depression and anxiety.

Merv spent most of his working life as a businessman and a pretty serious one. He ran all sorts of businesses – from pizza delivery to IT. Like any good businessman, he knew how to scrutinize a business model, discover its profit levers, and crank on them. He told himself that by 40 he’d be a millionaire. When he made it, he decided to double his money in the next five years and then he’d retire.

Merv made his millions and retired at 45. Three days later he was diagnosed with a rare bone disease called aplastic anaemia and told he had weeks to live.

“On receiving the news I laughed and laughed and laughed,” Merv said. “The doctor said why are you laughing and I said I don’t know, I guess the whole thing is funny. I worked so hard to be so successful and now I have weeks to live. I think that’s funny.”

Over the following months Merv – whose workaholic lifestyle hadn’t blessed him with many close friends – stayed home alone, laughed, ate oysters, and took his dog for long walks. He got his affairs in order. He planned his funeral. He kept laughing. His dog often looked at him like it thought he was going mad. Merv thought the dog was probably right.

But he started to get better. He kept laughing and he kept improving and one day the doctors said we don’t know why, but you’re in the clear. Merv was intrigued about how he had been healed and wanted to understand it better.

THE ‘GURU OF GIGGLES’

Merv’s research on the healing power of laughter led him to Dr Madan Katari, sometimes called the Guru of Giggles. Dr Katari invited Merv to the 2005 International Conference of Laughter Yoga in Mumbai. One evening the doctor pushed the reluctant Australian onto the stage for a laughing contest. Merv made it to the finals and won the trophy. Best Laughing Man in the World. “And from that moment on, my life has never been the same,” he said.

Laughter and its ability “to reduce stress, depression and anxiety while improving mood, optimism and wellbeing,” led him into a new business. This one, however, was much more about health and healing than the bottom line. Merv runs laughter yoga sessions for corporations and organisations, from public sector managers to nursing homes. He runs a laughing club in Melbourne and trains other Laughter Yoga teachers. He has worked with Deakin University to research the positive impact of laughter on workplace wellbeing, he’s worked with Monash Health’s kidney dialysis unit and studied the benefits of laughter for people in chronic pain. He calls himself Australia’s leading gelotologist: “Gelotology is the study of laughter and its effects on the body from psychological and physiological perspectives,” he said, “not to be confused with gerontology.”

THE PATHOLOGY OF HILARITY

Years after he had been cured and thrown his whole life into laughter, Merv discovered there may have been a medical explanation for the uncontrolled chortling triggered by his terminal diagnosis.

In 2019 he appeared on the SBS television program Medicine or Myth. During the show, panelist Dr Charlie Teo, a prominent Australian neurologist, said he had a theory about Merv’s post-diagnosis hilarity. One symptom of Merv’s disease was uncontrolled bleeding and Dr Teo said small bleeds in certain areas of the brain were known to trigger pathological laughter.

Merv finally had a medical explanation for his own experience, but by then he was on a much bigger quest for answers.  He had seen his methods work many times over, but he wanted the science to prove why. With a background in electronics engineering and a logical business brain, he knew the value of data and of evidence-based practice.

THE LAUGHTER QUOTIENT

“Science and medicine are based on mathematics,” Merv says. “It’s all about the numbers. E=mc2, the theory of the universe, it’s all based on mathematics.

“Medicine is little more than a set of mathematical equations. We take your blood pressure, it’s too high or too low, we’ll give you this medication, in specific doses, until the numbers are right. So I thought, what is the maths of laughter?” Merv began to break laughter down into its contributing parts. “And I created the laughter quotient which is the mathematical equation that is laughter.”

The four elements of laughter he defined are length, repetition, volume and pitch. In his research on pain management he noticed that “some people said “I’m completely cured, I have no pain” where others said there was no change at all and the people in the middle said, well, there’s something going on. I wondered if it was the type of laughter that made the difference, and what would the laughter that works look like?”

Merv developed an app based on his laughter equation: Length times Repetition divided by Volume and Pitch: L X R ÷ V X P.

“I think the best, healing laughter is our authentic laugh,” he said. “We’ve always heard laughter, but with the app you can see it. When I tap into my authentic laugh, it forms this beautiful pattern and I wonder if that’s the vibration or the energy that could decrease a brain tumor? I wonder if that’s the vibration or energy that could help someone with depression, that could help with arthritis? See laughter is the best medicine but what is it the best medicine for? That’s what I’m exploring.”

BUT IS IT YOGA?

Laughter Yoga uses gentle movement and specific actions, accessible to both the wheelchair-bound elderly and kids – plus lots of laughter, but what makes it yoga?

First, it starts with the body, yoga’s fundamental tool for taking us deeper.

“Yoga is uniting the body, mind and spirit,” Merv said. “Laughing uses the body and it’s the body that links us – in the movement of the lymph, blood, oxygen – to what we call the life force. In yoga, it’s called prana.”

Next, it uses the breath. “Laughter yoga combines laughter exercises with pranayama breathing,” Merv said. Yogis have always known the secret to triggering the relaxation response is in the exhale. “Laughter is an extreme form of exhalation,” he said, “but it’s joyful. It’s joyful breathing and that joy comes from within and it’s from here (pats his belly) and not here (points to his head.) Laughter itself is a form of meditative breathing.”

And laughter connects us to spirit.

“We’re pretty good on the body and the mind but spirit is hard to define,” Merv said. “I say the word spirit means to breathe. We inspire when we’re born, we expire when we die, and everything in between is spiritual – so as long as you’re breathing, you are a spiritual being. It’s just a matter of what are you doing to enhance that spirituality.”

Body, mind and spirit. Laughter Yoga ticks the boxes for real yoga – it improves wellbeing, plus it’s a whole lot of fun. And if we’re lucky enough to be breathing and enjoying another day, what’s not to laugh about?