Why Laughter Is Good For You

How Laughter Can Reduce Stress and Improve Your Health

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine; but a broken spirit drieth the bones. -Proverbs 17:22

Feeling stressed out, angry or sad? Dread going to work?

Try this: Open your mouth as wide as you can, bug out your eyes, stick out your tongue, bring your hands up like the claws of a lion, then erupt in a mighty roar of hearty laughter.

Or this: Sitting down, pretend you're on a roller coaster approaching the top of the hill. Slowly raise your arms higher and higher, bend back, lift your feet off the ground, and in a rising tone of voice, exclaim: "Oooooohh." Then, as the imaginary coaster races downhill, bring your arms crashing down with a big belly laugh that crescendos as you bend over at the waist.

Even if your laughter seems forced, don't be surprised if you feel much better. Just as lifting weights and doing aerobic exercises can strengthen the body and invigorate the spirit, scientists today believe that the act of laughter can be a physically and emotionally therapeutic force.

The lion and roller coaster laughs, together with about a dozen others, are now featured exercises in 1000 "laughter clubs" worldwide. A growing trend first reported on by ABC's Peter Jennings in a l9981 World News Tonight report, laughter clubs (about 100 in the U.S.) are the absolute latest in stress- reduction therapy, easing tensions of modern life and enhancing one's health. And laughter workouts are being effectively used in corporate settings, hospitals, nursing homes, and even grade schools.

Frame Your Mind To Mirth

Ever since the mid-l960's, when the well-known Saturday Review writer Norman Cousins was diagnosed with a terminal disease and said he laughed himself to health by watching "Candid Camera" and funny Marx Brothers movies (and by ingesting megadoses of vitamin C), scientists have been tantalized by the possibilities of this mind-body connection.

Four centuries before this, Shakespeare was writing about the healing power of levity in The Taming of the Shrew: "And frame your mind to mirth and merriment, which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life."

Today, Dr. William Fry, a psychiatrist, laughter researcher, and professor emeritus at Stanford University Medical School, agrees with Shakespeare: "When you're laughing you discharge tension associated with the three primary negative emotions--anxiety, fear, and anger," says the physician, who has devoted 30 years to laughter research. "Any of these emotions in excess can lead to diseases that shorten life. If you can laugh at what you fear, the fear just vanishes.

"Mirthful laughter," he continues, "is a total body activity that conditions the heart muscle, exercises the diaphragm, abdominal and thoracic muscles, and augments our respiratory exchange, with more oxygen coming in and more carbon dioxide going out, improving lung capacity."

Moreover, the stimulation of laughter, he explains, improves circulation because it elevates the heart rate and blood pressure. "A day's worth of hearty laughter," Dr. Fry figures, "is about equal to ten minutes on the rowing machine."

"Without question, laughter has a healing and preventive effect on our health, much like moderate exercise, meditation, prayer, or yoga," adds Dr. Lee Berk, associate professor of pathology and human anatomy at the School of Medicine of Loma Linda University, in southern California.

"In fact, the parallels between laughter and exercise are uncanny," says Berk, a laughter pioneer who reels off a list of health benefits that make laughter a virtual panacea: "Laughter," he reckons, "can relax the muscles, increase alertness and memory, reduce physical pain, lessen emotional stress, boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, improve circulation, increase vigor, defuse anger, and may even produce endorphins that provide a natural high."

Such dazzling gains have not gone unnoticed by many U.S. hospitals, which offer humor rooms, humor wagons (filled with videos, oversized props like Groucho glasses and stick-on noses, and magic tricks), in-house humor TV channels, and clowns. Practitioners believe that any of these methods-- through the laughter they produce--can improve respiratory ailments like asthma and chronic bronchitis (forcing air out of the lungs), and the outlook of patients.

Not to mention cardiac rehabilitation, where laughter may be key, notes Berk:

"In a study of cardiac patients asked to watch humorous videos for 30 minutes daily for an entire year, there was an 8.3% recurrence of heart attacks as compared to 41.7% in the group treated by conventional methods. If I had come up with a medication that accomplished that--I'd be on my way to Sweden to get a Nobel Prize! Laughter is FREE--which means we have the ability to heal ourselves and reduce stress. Isn't that amazing?"

Taking Laughter To Work and School

Small wonder that some companies are now extending themselves beyond dress-down days, sports tournaments, and ice-cream parties to offering employees organized laughterfests, aided by more than 20 U.S. humor- consulting firms.

One key player in the U.S. laughter business is psychologist Steve Wilson, a self-proclaimed "joyologist" who left behind his private practice in Gahanna, Ohio to co-found both the North American Laughter Club and World Laughter Tour Inc.,which certifies "laughter leaders."

"When you double over and go limp with laughter and end up telling your friends-- 'Thanks I needed that!'--you really did need it," exclaims Wilson. "A laughter burst in a corporate setting," he observes, "gives employees a chance to discharge tension, it energizes them (better than a coffee break), and boosts their creativity. And creativity is essential for planning, problem-solving, and decision-making. Employees who are creative and energized are going to be more productive."

Just ask Bobbe White, a business development officer at the State Street Bank and Trust Co. in Quincy, Illinois, who paces employees through giggles once a week: "When I first did this at a staff meeting, they thought I was nuts!" laughs White, who received laughter leader accreditation at Columbus State Community College, in Ohio, where she was trained by the World Laughter Tour Inc.

"Employees," she admits, "were apprehensive and reluctant. But a year later, they're more relaxed, they laugh more easily, they deal with customer conflict with less strain--and our laughter club has created a feeling of overall camaraderie."

Bank vice president Glennon Rost, 42, agrees: "At first, I couldn't believe they were asking me to do this," he chuckles, "but in no time I was laughing all over the place. Life's too short to spend any of it mad at the world. And you can't be mad or worry about a bad loan while you're laughing. It's also easier to approach a colleague later in the day if you've seen them break loose in laughter."

The irony is that humans laugh less and less as they mature, attempting to squelch their childlike giggles, an instinct contrary to their emotional and physical health.

"The average American pre-school child laughs about 400 times a day,3 marvels Steve Wilson, "while the average American adult is maybe laughing as little as 15 times! That's because we're bogged down by stress."

To prevent this happening to a new generation, some grade schools are addressing the problem head-on, using laughter clubs to reduce peer and parental pressures. "These kids," says Wilson, "are getting a lifetime inoculation to protect them from losing their ability to laugh so they don't lose 385 laughs by the time they're grown up. My philosophy of life is: DON'T POSTPONE JOY. Mark Twain said 'life is uncertain, so eat your dessert first.'"

Laugh For No Reason

The laughter club movement began in Bombay in l995, when an inventive Indian physician, Dr. Madan Kataria, a longtime student of humor and yoga, observed that patients who laughed frequently tended to recover more quickly from illness and stayed healthier longer. He discovered that a session of forced laughter in the morning could create a sense of well-being and leave behind an emotional glow.

"The idea came to my mind in a flash," says Kataria, in an interview from Bombay. "I had read so much research about the health benefits of laughter, yet nobody was laughing enough in our stressful, modern life.

"So one day," he recalls, "I went to a public park at 7 a.m., stood on a corner, and started laughing at jokes with five people. But then I thought, why not laugh for no reason--because laugher is infectious."

So it was. Kataria founded a company, Laughter Clubs International, which has sprouted more than 400 affiliates in India with 50,000 members, most of whom meet in the early morning at public parks or apartment complexes before going to work.

Dr. Kataria, who has written a landmark book about his techniques, Laugh For No Reason [Madhuri International, l999], believes a laughter "prescription" is the best prevention:

"More than 70% of illnesses--like high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, depression, frequent coughs and colds, peptic ulcers, insomnia, allergies, asthma, menstrual difficulties, tension headaches, stomach upsets and even cancer--have some relation to stress," he says.

"A good laugh," he concludes, "brings you instant relaxation and has been proven to reduce the blood levels of stress hormones like adrenalin, dopamine, and cortisol." Fake It Till You Make It

Whether in Bombay or Chicago, the format of laughter clubs is the same, consisting of a 20-minute blend of mirthful laughter, deep breathing and stretching exercises. No jokes or comedy are required!

Certified laughter leader Margot Escott of Naples Florida, a psychotherapist and national speaker on humor and healing, prepares participants in the following way: "I always begin by saying: 'Forced or simulated laughter might seem phony or fake to you, but the body doesn't know the difference. You get the same benefits from laughter--whether it's 'real' or not!'"

"Self-induced laughter," adds Dr. Kataria, "is contagious--and very soon the voluntary laughter does get converted into genuine peals of giggles."

Steve Wilson, who was trained by Dr. Kataria, notes: "You don't even have to be in the mood to laugh. Motion creates emotion," he believes, "so fake it till you make it."

At the start of every laughter session, members launch into a three-minute warm-up, repeating, "Ho-Ho,Ha-Ha-Ha"--a rhythmic chant spoken in unison with brisk clapping.

"Doing this," says Wilson, "stimulates acupressure points in the palms of the hands and oxygenates the blood."

Next is deep breathing, a core element borrowed from yoga that releases tension and relaxes participants.

Then the real fun begins with a group of interactive laughs. The first is called the Greeting laugh: Look into the eyes of the person next to you. Exchange a hand-shake or high-five while laughing in a warm, inviting tone. Then keep changing partners, shaking hands, and laughing.

Any number of improvised laughs may follow, such as the roller coaster and lion, or the always popular Humming: Laugh with the lips closed, so the sound of the laugh has to come out of your nose. This makes a humming sound which resonates throughout the skull. "Fluttering your arms and hands like wings is optional," says Wilson, "but it's a sure fire way to augment laughs!"

Other staples includes:

Cocktail laugh: A parody of superficial party behavior. Pretend you're holding a martini on one hand, shake hands daintily with the other, and then laugh in a "kiss-kiss," phony, coy, sarcastic manner.

Argument laugh, one of the most cathartic, is especially popular in schools: Two people face one another, both wagging an accusatory index finger at the other in an angry posture while vigorously laughing.

This one's a favorite of ten-year-old Nick White, son of laughter leader Bobbe White: "My older sister [Korey, 12] and I argue a lot and I like doing the pointing!" Nick reports in a gleeful telephone interview. "When we're doing the argument laugh, we're not really mad. Laughing makes kids feel better so you don't worry about anything."

Nick says he also likes the Crazy Dance: You dance any which way, arms and legs in motion, while you're shaking with laughter.

And don't forget the Penguin: You keep your arms at your sides, your heels together, and just waddle around and laugh, circulating from member to member.

Don't participants feel a bit silly roaring like a lion or flapping hands around like a bird? "The word 'silly' comes from an old English word meaning a blessing or a gift," says Escott, "so to be silly is to give someone a blessing."

Interspersed between structured giggles are exercises--gentle neck and shoulder stretches and side-and waist bends, all meant to limber up and tone the muscles and promote flexibility and relaxation.

Due to the sometimes intense physicality of a laughter workout, Dr. Kataria and his followers warn that pregnant women, those with uterovaginal prolapse (weakening of the ligaments supporting the uterus), heart patients, individuals with high blood pressure, anyone with eye complications (especially glaucoma), a hernia or hemorrhoids, or those recovering from recent abdominal surgery should not participate in a laughter session. Laughter For Seniors and the Chronically Ill

Perhaps its most seductive effect, laughter (like chocolate) nearly always provides a potent euphoric benefit, reports Dr. Kataria, "because it increases the release of endorphins--the body's own morphine, natural pain killers," producing a "runner's high." Endorphins, he has proven, can lessen pain perception in those suffering from arthritis, tension headaches, and a myriad of other maladies faced by seniors or the chronically ill.

As Norman Cousins wrote in his bestselling book, Anatomy of an Illness,4 "ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep."

That's why laughter clubs are becoming increasingly popular in nursing homes, says laughter leader Barb Templeton, activities director at the Heritage Health Care and Rehabilitation Center in Naples, Florida, a skilled nursing home with 97 residents.

"Laughter therapy is an elixir that can absolutely mask pain and cut through the depression and boredom of being in a nursing home," remarks Templeton, who says residents who are disabled can fully participate--whether lying down, or using walkers or wheelchairs.

Talk to Yvonne Cook, a resident of the home, age 62: "I had a stroke and can't move my left side," she says in a phone interview,"but the exercises help my strong side and I can laugh sitting down. After laughter club, there are lots of smiling faces in wheelchairs!"

John DeBruyn, although only age 50, is also a resident at Heritage after suffering multiple strokes. "Laughter club," he confides, "keeps me out of the dumps. I see what depression does to people...it's a killer. So I always feel like laughing."

Thomas White, age 83 and suffering from Alzheimer's disease, attends laughter club every week at the urging of his wife Marguerite, a non-resident at Heritage: "I've noticed he's less tense, more relaxed and happy. We've laughed all our lives--through 50 years of marriage--and we're not stopping now!"

Finally, for seniors living independently, like Dottie Wilson, age 89, of Naples, Florida, laughter clubs provide an emotional boost: "The first time I went to a laughter club, at my church, I was on a high until I went to bed! I could hardly sleep I was so stimulated," she recalls. "I didn't know any of the 50 people in the group and it was a great icebreaker. Seniors need this. It's better than a visit to the doctor because it takes the focus away from age and ailments. You get in touch with your lighter side."

Speaking of icebreakers, nothing works faster than the Ice-Cube Down The Back, says Steve Wilson: "This laugh was invented by women in their 80's and 90's--members of a laughter club in an assisted living facility in Canton, Ohio. They tried it out on the day they went on a picnic. You pretend someone just put an ice-cube down your back, wriggle around, and start giggling." The Spiritual Component of Laughter

The finale of each laugh workout arrives with three affirmative cheers: The leader delivers the first punch line by saying: 'We are the happiest people in the world.' Everyone raises their arms and says, 'Y-e-ee-s!' 'We are the healthiest people in the world.' 'Y-e-s!' 'We are Laughter Club members! 'Y-e- e-s!'" Then members stretch their arms out toward the sky, close their eyes and, in India, pray for world peace.

"If we laughed more, we'd fight less and there would be more peace in the world," exclaims Steve Wilson, who explains that laughter clubs always feature an underlying spiritual component:

"If you only derive the physical benefits of laughter, that's good, but not good enough. We also have to get the spirit of laughter. So when we're cooling down at the end of a session, the leader always mentions 'emotional balancing,'" comprised of three practices: On Mondays, group members are encouraged to pay compliments; Wednesdays are reserved for practicing gratitude;Fridays are centered on forgiveness.

The end result is no less than a spiritual makeover, promises Wilson: "With all this, in the face of a setback or disappointment, you can make an RMA-- rapid mental adjustment--and decide to be amazed and amused, rather than angry or hurt.

"Your anger," he warns in parting, "is your worst enemy--for your heart and for your attitude. So laughter workouts turn out to be the ultimate cost- effective therapy. Laughter is free, it's easy to pass around, and it prevents hardening of the attitudes!!"

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Tips for Putting More Laughter Into Your Life

1)Create your own Mirth-Aid Kit: Find humor videos, toys, and fun props like wind-up toys, Groucho glasses, a clown nose, a mechanical laugh bag, a horn, bubbles--anything that amuses you, and tuck them into your desk, glove compartment, or briefcase. The next time you're stressed, take them out and amuse yourself and others.

2)Join or start a laughter club (for instructions log onto: www.worldlaughtertour.com)

3)Find a humor ally--a laughing buddy who makes you laugh and vice-versa. Trade funny stories and laughs. Or subscribe to Humor Pal@www.jesthealth.com.

4)Surround yourself with humor: At home, decorate the refrigerator with magnetized cartoons, humorous columns, and fun photos, or create a family humor bulletin board.

5)Tell stories on yourself:Take your bloopers, foibles, and shortcomings...and laugh about them.

6)Spend time with preschool children: Kids are natural laughers who don't put a negative spin on setbacks. Let it rub off on you.

7)Loosen up unrelenting standards: Anything you can do to reduce perfectionism and create a casual atmosphere will increase potential for laughter in your life. Worry, anxiety and perfectionism kill laughter

8)Share the laughter wealth:When you read a newspaper or magazine, keep a pair of scissors handy, cut out cartoons or articles that strike you as funny, and pop them in the mail to friends and family

9)Exploit the contagious laugh effect: Laughter loves company-- As Victor Borge said: "A smile is the shortest distance between two people." So seek out cheerful, good-natured people and avoid crabby, grouchy, negative, or sarcastic people.

10)Bring your sense of humor to work: The funny line and bottom line can go hand-in-hand.

Side-bar based upon interviews with humor consultants: Steve Wilson of WorldLaughterTour; Joel Goodman of The Humor Project Inc.; and Patti Wooten of Just For The Health of It.

Mirth Aid Kit available for photography, created by Patti Wooten.

For more information about laughter clubs: http://www.worldlaughtertour.com

For more information about developing humor skills: www.aath.org">Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor

Bestselling author GLENN PLASKIN is one of the nation's leading psychology reporters and celebrity interviewers. His specialty today is interviewing the nation's top experts in spirituality, motivation, happiness, and self- improvement. A contributing editor at FAMILY CIRCLE, the world' s largest women's magazine, he is available for TV, radio, and print interviews. He also coaches those interested in writing articles and books. He can be contacted circ directly at: glenfamilycircle@aol.com.

Plaskin is the author of two books--HOROWITZ--the biography of Vladimir Horowitz [William Morrow]--and TURNING POINT: Pivotal Moments in the Lives of America's Celebrities.[Birch Lane Press]. His celebrity interviews have appeared in Family Circle, US, Ladies Home Journal,Playboy,The New York. Times, and the New York Daily News. His TURNING POINT column was syndicated by Tribune Media Services in more than 50 U.S. newspapers. His celebrity interviews have included exclusives with Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Calvin Klein, Diana Ross, Nancy Reagan, Chery, Meryl Streep, Do