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A Prescription for Positive Thinking

Studies show laughter helps lift moods and enhances positive thinking.


Peggy Stabholz loves to laugh. In fact, that’s exactly what she’s doing now, on the phone from Canton, Ohio.

Giggling like a teenager, Stabholz recounts her favorite scene from The Pink Panther Strikes Again—where Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling detective played by Peter Sellers, asks an innkeeper about a dog that’s next to him.

“Does your dog bite?” Clouseau asks. The innkeeper says no. The detective bends to pet the “nice doggie,” who promptly snarls and bites him. “I thought you said your dog did not bite!” Clouseau snaps. “That is not my dog,” the innkeeper replies.

Thinking about this classic comedic bit has lightened Stabholz’s mood countless times over the years. What’s more, describing it has helped her lift the spirits of others she sees, either as a volunteer or in her professional capacity as a clinical and eldercare counselor with Jewish Family Services in Canton.

“I met with this older guy at a hospital,” Stabholz recalls. “He said, ‘Nothing makes me laugh.’ So I told him that Pink Panther scene…and he laughed! He said, ‘Oh yeah, I liked those movies. The Three Stooges, too.’ When people have been in pain for a long time, they forget what makes them laugh.”

Laughter won’t necessarily solve their problems or erase their hurt. “But it can help them heal,” says Stabholz, who has seen its positive effects on people with diseases like cancer, MS and depression.

Increasing numbers of Americans are turning to laughter exercises as a tool for boosting their emotional and physical well-being. Many are learning these exercises in laughter clubs run by the nearly 2,000 “certified laughter leaders” (including Stabholz) trained by psychologist and self-proclaimed “joyologist” Steve Wilson.

Some folks, in their retirement years, have been getting laughs in a different kind of club. They’re performing in comedy clubs. “I had an 82-year-old man who rocked the house at the Hollywood Improv,” says comedian Barry Weisenberg, who teaches stand-up comedy classes in Southern California and has his L.A. students perform at the Improv for their final exam.

Weisenberg can understand why the 55-plus crowd is into doing stand-up. He says nothing feels better than expressing yourself onstage and making people laugh.

Nothing, that is, except laughing yourself. Sebastien Gendry of Pasadena, California, knows. He was so unhappy in his telemarketing job that he says, “I felt like I was dying inside.”

Then he discovered laughter yoga, a combination of laughing exercises and yoga breathing developed by physician Madan Kataria in India. “It allowed me to laugh at my situation,” says Gendry. “Nothing in my world has changed, but how I relate to the world around me has changed.” His experience inspired him to start the American School of Laughter Yoga.

Even the U.S. military has gotten in on the act. Its laugh leader is Army Reserve Colonel James “Scotty” Scott. As director of the Pentagon’s Individual and Family Support Policy, he uses laughter therapy to help families of reservists who are about to be deployed to Iraq.

His sessions with military families follow the format common to most laughter clubs. No one-liners and rimshots here, but a series of exercises that celebrate playfulness.

First, participants are asked to simulate the sound of laughter—they chant something like “Ho, ho, ha-ha-ha!” and repeat it a number of times. Since there aren’t gags or punch lines to elicit chuckles, laughter has to be faked at first. That’s okay: Manufactured giggles quickly turn into the real thing.

Group dynamics helps (laughter really is infectious!), as do activities like laughing while doing exaggerated imitations of animals (waddle like a penguin, roar like a lion) or pretending to have an animated phone conversation (gestures and all).

“Something very powerful happens when you laugh, or just think about laughing,” Scott says. “You can’t think about anything else. The stress stops immediately.” However brief, these respites from fear and worry are necessary.

“These families are under a tremendous amount of strain,” he says. “We give them the opportunity to express joy simply for the sake of joy.

Laughter has tremendous benefits, and stress management is the one I believe is the most valuable.”

The idea that humor can be healing isn’t new. In the 1960s Norman Cousins, longtime editor of Saturday Review, was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.

He prescribed for himself a most unusual regimen for that time: a daily dose of belly laughter, administered through regular viewings of Marx Brothers movies. “Ten minutes of genuine belly laughter,” he wrote, “would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.”

Cousins believed positive emotions were crucial to recovery from disease—and recover he did, as he chronicled in his 1979 best-seller Anatomy of an Illness.

Several studies indicate that, as Cousins noted, exposure to humor diminishes the perception of pain.

In addition, Stanford University’s William Fry, M.D., a leading researcher on the physiological effects of mirth, has also found that 20 seconds of guffawing gives the heart the same workout as three minutes on a rowing machine, and laughing 200 times burns as many calories as 10 minutes rowing.

Michael Miller, M.D., director of preventive cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, has been investigating the connection between laughter and heart health.

He led a study in 2000 that showed people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh in everyday life situations than healthy folks of the same age. How does laughter protect the heart? No one is sure, but Miller’s latest research, presented last March, gets closer to an answer.

Twenty healthy people, 10 men and 10 women, were shown 15-minute segments of two movies, one from a funny film like There’s Something About Mary, the other a disturbing clip like the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. While people were laughing, the inner lining of their blood vessels (the endothelium) expanded, increasing blood flow 22 percent.

Mental stress had the opposite effect, constricting the endothelium and decreasing blood flow by 35 percent. Impairment of the endothelium is linked to hardening of the arteries, which can eventually lead to a heart attack.

Laughter also strengthens the response of the immune system, according to Lee Berk, Dr.P.H., and Stanley Tan, M.D., of Loma Linda University. Berk and Tan took blood samples from people before, during and after they watched a videotape of a comedian.

Compared to the control group, who didn’t watch any tape, everything from the number and activity of killer T-cells, which attack viruses and tumors, to the level of infection-fighting antibodies, went up during the “mirthful laughter” sessions. Some of these remained elevated the day after.

Research also showed that levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, which suppress immune activity, dropped after laughing. According to Berk, it doesn’t matter if the laughter is real or faked—your brain and body can’t tell the difference.

Sebastien Gendry tells the students in his laughter yoga class about these benefits. What matters to them more, though, is the effect that’s not quantifiable but no less valuable: They just feel better.

Go to a class and you’ll see the students are a happy bunch, grinning broadly, chortling like champs. The point is to be uninhibited, get outside yourself and let go of stress.

The gigglefests last for about 45 minutes. Then, it’s time for laughter meditation. Students take a hiatus from hilarity and lie on their backs quietly. Soon one person starts to laugh, then another. Soon, the entire studio erupts in glee.

That falls in line with Peggy Stabholz’s advice: Find “laughter buddies” to share humorous stories and experiences with. “If you want the benefits of laughter, you can’t be passive,” she says. “You have to go out and laugh. You have to make it a part of your life.”

What are you waiting for? Go ahead, laugh more!

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