A cackle a day...
By Lesley Holdcroft
Knight Ridder Newspapers
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," says 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. 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.
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 employees 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."
Laugh leader Teresa Verde begins by demonstrating a laugh. The laughers repeat it, rush into the circle making eye contact and laughing with each other, and then find their places again, cooling down with the ritual "ho-ho-ha-ha-ha" and two rounds of deep breathing.
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.
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.
"It's not that we don't still have all the same problems, but through laughter, we also feel more joy," Verde says.
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.
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."