It's no joke: Laughing is good for you
Seattle Times staff reporter
Laugh your way to peace?
Yes, say the believers. Laugh, they claim, and you may live longer. Laugh and you may boost your immune system.
And what if the whole world learned to lighten up?
"It may take 1,000 years, but we hope to see world peace through laughter," declares Steve Wilson, the country's leading "joyologist."
Officially, this means Wilson is a man who dedicates his life to the pursuit of joy. For the Ohio physician, laughter is the triumph in his bag of healing tools.
"Laughter prevents hardening of the attitudes, a vital step toward the goal of peace," he says.
In the United States, more than 500 laughter clubs exist, and in Seattle, 50 more laugh leaders received certification from Wilson last month, bringing the total to about 55. Locally, participants include students at Blanchet High and inmates at King County's North Rehabilitation Facility in Shoreline.
Many laugh-club members find themselves transformed into children again, and why not. The average preschooler laughs up to 400 times a day. The average adult? A sad seven to 15.
Observing a laugh club in India, Wilson sensed the potency of a gaggle of beaming adults coming together, making eye contact and laughing as an aerobic workout. Perhaps the most startling detail of the laugh club is the price. In this world of often-expensive New Age improvements, these chuckles come free.
Free of humor, too, which is subjective — and potentially offensive. Laughter clubs are fueled by unbridled chortles in a format as disciplined as a yoga classroom, but far more fun.
Laughing became a formal discipline in India, where family physician Dr. Madan Kataria invited five of his patients into a city park to experiment with the healing qualities of laughter. The effect on the patients' spirits and health was striking, and in 1995, Kataria founded laughter as a form of yoga.
Known as the Guru of Giggles, Kataria's influence on the movement is profound. In Seattle, a Harborview Medical Center employee brought laughter back to Washington state last summer after attending a laughing group in India. Nearly every laugh leader carries a copy of Kataria's book "Laugh For No Reason."
In Seattle, it's easy to find an enthusiastic group of bellowers in the Phinney Neighborhood Center each Wednesday after work.
The 30-minute session includes about eight silly laughs, from snorts to guffaws to the secret-weapon silent laugh and the ice-cube-down-the-shirt laugh.
The laugh club that gathered here seemed like any other group of Americans: a little stiff from a day of work, a little tired. But their laughs! Their laughs were wild and crazy spurtings.
Leader Verde encouraged members to laugh wildly — "to fake it until you make it" — and to invent their own. One woman demonstrated an animal laugh, undulating with the sounds and mannerisms of a chimpanzee. Inspired, the group let out bird laughs, pig snorts, dog woofs and Cheshire-cat caterwauls.
"Wow," says Verde, surveying the heated participants, who, if anything, had a hard time coming down off the eruptions of peals and gales. "I'm almost scared." But she was laughing, too.
"It's not that we don't still have all the same problems," Verde says after the class, "but through laughter, we also feel more joy."
Seattle laugh leader Karen Schneider-Chen tells the story of holding a laugh club for women from Egypt, Asia and the Middle East. "We didn't share a single language, but the laughing was universal."
Clearly, laughter is fun. But what of the medical benefits? Kevin Wilhelmsen of Harborview Medical Center cites several medical studies that show laughter orchestrates changes in neural chemistry and gives the body a cardiovascular and respiratory workout, releasing muscle tension and stimulating the thymus gland.
Medically, this means laughter may improve sleep and digestion and offer an antidote to anxiety and fear.
Like Wilson, Wilhelmsen speaks of the peace-giving aspects of laughter. "It's a way to avoid intense and difficult emotions. It's part of my spiritual practice."
Wilson's, too. "Laughing," says Wilson, "is the easiest form of meditation. The reason we have war is because there is so much war inside of us as individuals," Wilson explains. Laughter helps diffuse those hard emotions, bringing people together, he says. "Laughter is joyous and infectious and contagious."
Whether laughter becomes a major world movement, a little serenity does seem to shower down over the Phinney Ridge group. Verde looks around, smiles. She thanks the group and says she's closing the night with a few affirmations.
"We love our lives!" she says.
"Yes!" choruses the group, raising their arms to the sky.
"We love laughing!"
"We are strong and fun!"
"We are life-affirming!"
"Ahhhhh," Verde exhales, and the group disbands, still giggling. The bonding continues as laughers cluster still, telling funny stories on the way to finding their cars.
A first step toward world peace?
Wilson is encouraged. "If we learn to laugh unconditionally," he explains, "our happiness becomes unconditional."
Lesley Holdcroft can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.