Laughter – wine for the soul

by Alison Benney, published May 2003 in The Irish Eyes

"Seven days without laughter makes one weak." - cartoonist Mort Walker

 

 

 

trying not to laugh out loud. All it takes is one person to start bubbling with the silliness, and soon everyone’s shoulders and bellies are not so quietly shaking, to muffled snorts and squeaks.

Laughter is infectious, although scientists haven’t quite figured out how it works. But it takes a willingness to let go. Karel Beer, founder of the Laughing Matters comedy club in Paris, says, “You lose your ego when you laugh. It’s common knowledge that when you get tickled, you only laugh if it’s being done by someone you like.” It’s all about trust, and he finds that women laugh much more unselfconsciously than men. Furthermore, he says, “Laughter has that common link with dance; if you’re too cool to dance, you’re probably also too cool to laugh.”

Men and women even laugh differently, according to a study in which more than a thousand bursts of laughter from 97 people were analysed. Women were more likely to laugh in a songlike manner, while men tended to grunt or snort. The laughter was secretly taped as the audience watched extracts from films such as Monty Python’s “bring out your dead” sketch, or the fake orgasm scene from “When Harry Met Sally”. Another group studied facial expressions from high school students’ yearbooks and found a link between natural smiles and later success in life.

But isn’t it a bit superficial to gather together to deliberately laugh? Perhaps, but therapists agree that where the body goes, the mind will follow. Simply pretending to laugh or smile can lighten up even a rotten mood. Furthermore, the physiological effort of laughing – the epiglottis half-closed, tear ducts activated, skin flushed, plus the range of noises emitted, from controlled snickers, escaped chortles and spontaneous giggles, to cackles, hoots and guffaws – can clear the respiratory track by dislodging mucus in the lungs. After half an hour of hasayoga, participants start coughing and clearing their throats; when it’s over, many report feelings of clear-headedness and a pleasant fatigue.

In addition, as humorist Victor Borge said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people”, and laugh clubs are, if a bit odd, still a place to meet others and re-learn how to laugh together with pure joy. According to RN Barbara Bartlein, in Laughing Your Way to Good Health, children laugh approximately 80 to 100 times daily, whereas adults laugh only 5-6 times per day.

Dr. Kataria’s goal of spreading laughter is no less than promoting global peace and an “epidemic of happiness”. He has created an annual World Laughter Day, and three years ago over 10,000 giggly people congregated in Copenhagen, making the Guinness Book of World Records, just laughing together for the health of it.

"Laughter is wine for the soul - laughter soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness…
the hilarious declaration made by man that life is worth living."
- Sean O'Casey

World Laughter Day is the first Sunday in May - in 2003, Sunday, 4th May. In Paris, it will take place at 18h45, at Jardin Tino Rossi, quai St. Bernard. For information, call Veronique Lorey, animatrice of the Onoze Rire club, tel: 01.43.70.77.39.

Read the story of Norman Cousins and the healing power of laughter.

Laughing Matters comedy club, tel: 01.53.19.98.88. Karel Beer: “Laughter is proven to extend life expectancy, so I’m going to give the guy in the Bible a run for his money. I get people laughing three times a week.”

 

What's so funny about the world today? The economy, war, terrorism, poverty, AIDS - life for many is no laughing matter. But according to a growing number of therapists, scientists, and one Indian doctor in particular, that is exactly why laughter needs to be taken more seriously.

It is already common knowledge that laughter relieves stress, which is a major source of modern ill-health, blamed for everything from ulcers and migraine headaches to cancer and heart disease. A bit of silliness can get the heart beating faster, bringing in extra oxygen and stimulating blood circulation, and can activate the proverbial endorphins, along with the pleasure-high often reported by joggers. According to Robert Holden, founder of the Happiness Project in Oxford, a 10-minute bout of laughter produces anti-inflammatory agents that can relieve back pain or arthritis, and may also reduce heart disease.

For some, laughter is the best medicine. Norman Cousins, author of Anatomy of an Illness, claimes it cured his cancer, after he turned around his disease by watching comedy shows and focusing on daily cheeriness. The movie "Patch Adams" highlighted the eponymous young doctor, played by Robin Williams, who incorporated humor to ease patients' tension and anxiety, dressing up in clown suits on his rounds to the children's wards. He later created the charitable Gesundheit! Institute.

But in the growing field of laugh therapy, many prefer to promote preventative means. In 1994, Dr. Madan Kataria, a doctor in Bombay, impressed by all the scientific evidence for the healing power of laughter, started gathering groups of people to laugh together on a regular basis. “Laugh and the world laughs with you” has taken on virtual life; today there are over 1,300 laughing clubs around the world, whose members are convinced that he who laughs, lasts.

Daniel Kiefer, a former hammock vendor, introduced Dr. Kataria’s clubs to France two years ago, and there are now 24 in the country, with four in Paris. But the “clubs de rire” are not simply comedy clubs, as Dr. Kataria learned that simply telling jokes isn’t sustainable.  Rather, each organiser leads groups of up to 50 people through an hour-long series of exercises of the laugh muscles, all 24 of them. Called “hasayoga”, the mirth-inducing repertoire includes alternating deep breathing with, for instance, the “lion laugh”, in which everyone holds out their hands like claws, assumes a lion’s snarling expression, turns to their neighbor and starts growling and laughing. The simplest exercise is a chant with accompanying rhythmic clapping to “ho-ho, ha-ha-ha”. But this reporter’s favorite is the silent laugh, during which everyone sits in a circle, keeping the mouth shut,