He was elderly, depressed and didn’t want to live. “He told me he was giving up,” says Irene Doniger, a registered nurse and psychologist practicing in King of Prussia. “So I told him it was time that we get goofy.”
Doniger put on a silly hat, and he smiled. Then she got him to laugh, but not by telling him a joke. Rather, Doniger suggested that he physically duplicate the state of laughter, without responding to anything funny. She did this by asking the question, “What do they say in Hawaii? Aloha, ha, ha!”
Is it silly? Certainly. Is it the kind of thing you might not want to do in public? Probably. But as a therapeutic tool that releases tension, raises the threshold of pain, encourages cooperation and banishes bad moods?
“Definitely,” Doniger says. “This patient refused to take antidepressants. After I got him to laugh and showed him some deep-breathing exercises, he said the good mood lasted for several days. It gave him back his ability to function socially, too. People who can laugh are more likely to listen to other people and react positively to another’s point of view.”
And not just with adults. A family whose members were emotionally estranged found they could at least listen to each other after a few deep belly laughs. “I had a child come in with anger issues. By getting him to laugh and showing him how to maintain that place within him where he could feel better, he found a way to keep his anger under control.”
A few minutes of laughter, Doniger says, can stimulate the release of endorphins that produce the “runner’s high” of aerobic exercise, raising the threshold of pain, improving breathing and blood circulation, enhancing joint flexibility, easing tension that can promote better behavior at home and work, and bringing on restful sleep.
As a kind of empirical proof, Doniger mentions a broken wrist she suffered a few years ago. “I tried laughing after my wrist was set,” she recalls, “and I didn’t have to take any of the pain medication I was prescribed.”
Then there was the heart attack she experienced. After feeling depressed about the illness, she investigated the use of laughter as a therapeutic tool. She has since used it with individual patients, group therapy and as a leader of the Laughter Club, whose participants have included business executives, bereavement groups, caregivers, high school students and the terminally ill.
“I don’t advocate laughter as a remedy for anyone, and if I’m working with someone who is on medication, I don’t suggest going off that medication,” Doniger says. “But there’s no doubt to me that laughter works on many levels.”
And that’s laughter without comedy and without laughing at anyone or anything. No joke.
About 50 years ago, journalist Norman Cousins made a very strong—and controversial—case for laughter as medicine with the publication of his bestselling memoir, Anatomy of an Illness. In the book, Cousins describes a fateful day in 1964 when he was told he had a paralyzing degenerative disease that would kill him in a few months. Cousins checked himself out of the hospital, took massive doses of Vitamin C, and watched Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy movies to bring on belly laughs and put himself in a better frame of mind. The result, according to Cousins, was less pain, full recovery of mobility, and an end to the degenerating symptoms.
Cousins’ story was made into two films, and his book has never gone out of print. It encouraged a trend in alternative medicines and psychosomatic therapies of which many in the medical profession remain skeptical. Cousins eventually died in 1990 at the age of 75, a full 26 years after he’d been diagnosed with a so-called fatal disease.
The role that laughter and emotions play in the treatment of illness remains controversial in medical science. And yet, enough evidence exists to suggest a correlation between mental attitude and general well-being. If it doesn’t always help, it certainly doesn’t hurt.
In 1995, Dr. Madan Kataria, a physician practicing in Mumbai, India, developed laughter yoga. Participants would meet in an outdoor setting, weather permitting, and combine the physical act of laughing with simple stretches and yoga breathing exercises. According to Kataria’s website, LaughterYoga.org, there are 6,000 groups practicing laughter yoga in 60 countries, including one in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia at Studio 1831.
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The American Laughter Clubs were created in 1998, after Ohio psychotherapist Steve Wilson was on a lecture tour of India and met Kataria. Wilson now leads weekend Laughter Club training and certification workshops throughout the country. His WorldLaughterTour.com explains the concept and offers links to certified club leaders.
After getting their certification, Laughter Club leaders take what they’ve learned and—like aerobics instructors, personal trainers and inspirational speakers—spread it to a wide range of groups. Susan Simon, a Plymouth Meeting leader, holds about 20 sessions a year for senior citizens, nurses and Alzheimer’s patients, as well as in corporate and business environments. She also has offered it as a noncredit course at Montgomery County Community College.
As a Laughter Club leader, Simon may wear silly hats and tell a joke or two, but she doesn’t consider herself a comedian or entertainer. Relying on humor to produce laughter “can polarize people,” she says. “Some might not get the joke and feel left out.”
“Laughter is an inclusive experience that doesn’t have to be about laughing at someone—or laughing with them,” adds Simon. “You want people to get healthful benefits of the laughing itself as quickly as possible.”
That can be vital for seniors, the hospitalized and the terminally ill, who are not capable of traditional exercise. “You may not get everybody participating in a group setting, but you can really feel the change in mood,” Simon says. “People get along a lot better after a session.”
And that is about as good as it gets. “We don’t promise any cures,” Simon adds. “I can’t promise that what I’ve seen will happen to others, but I’ve seen a lot of good things. I’m helping people physically, helping them balance themselves, nourish optimism and inspire hope.”
Last year, Laughter Club leader Barbara Hee of Fox Chase saw an uptick in her sessions as the nation’s economy slid into recession. “Did one thing have to do with another?” asks Hee. “I don’t look at it that way. I look at how people feel going in and coming out—and they come out feeling far better.”
Hee tries to laugh every day, and get those around her to do so, “for no reason,” she says. “We usually have plenty of reasons not to feel good—too many. So what if we don’t have any reason to feel good? If you can just laugh and feel good anyway, you find a reason later.”
As the education coordinator at St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia, Hee is careful to note that Laughter Club sessions are “nonreligious, noncompetitive and nonpolitical.”
But, in terms of her own faith, “laughter is a big component of spirituality,” Hee says. “The joy is the spirit, and I think God wants us to live in joy.”
Local Laughter Club Leaders
Provides information on the Laughter Club concept, lists club leaders by location, and posts founder Steve Wilson’s workshop dates.
The online headquarters of founder Dr. Madan Kataria’s Laughter Yoga, a technique that offers a blend of yoga breathing and laughing techniques. You’ll find a directory of clubs, links, and details on World Laughter Day (every May 4). Laughter Yoga meets every Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Studio 1831 (1831 Brandywine St., Philadelphia; 215-665-1991, studio1831.com).