When neurobiologist Robert Provine began studying laughter in the late 1980s, he discovered some interesting things. First, it was a very difficult phenomenon to study scientifically — and not many had tried. Two, humor might not have as much to do with it as one might think.
Provine, who documented hundreds of candid social interactions in restaurants and malls and other public places, decided that the traditional idea of laughter as being an individual’s response to something funny — the stand-up comedian model — didn’t hold up in practice. Rather, he found, laughter most often functioned as a social bond, an innate and instinctive form of communication.
“When a group of people laugh .. they broadcast solidarity and togetherness not unlike a howling pack of wolves,” writes psychologist Franz B. M. De Waal in a review of Provine’s book published in Scientific American.
Provine’s findings are right in line with a growing field: therapeutic laughter groups. The groups don’t focus on joke-telling or funny leaders, but rather on the physical, contagious act of laughing itself, and how that activity can boost physiological and emotional health and well-being.
How do they get people to laugh without jokes? Last week, a group of locals were given the chance to find out during a two-day workshop offered by World Laughter Tour. Participants included a social worker, a speech pathologist, elder care workers, an occupational therapist, veterans affairs workers, a doctor and an education professional. The group members, led by Jennifer Fielder, an RN from Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage, were trained in how to become laughter therapy group leaders in their own workplaces, a skill that appears to take more enthusiasm than talent.
“You don’t have to be funny, and you don’t have to be an extrovert to be a Certified Laughter Leader, you just have to have that sense of wanting people to feel better,” said Claire Richardson, who organized the workshop.
The workshop involved a series of World Laughter Tour activities — from the airline safety demonstration activity to the crowded subway activity — that begin by mimicking the physical experience and sounds of laughing. Under the idea that emotion follows action, and given laughter’s contagious nature, real laughter tends to follow.
“There’s something about the exercises —when we do them together, you get to that point where you are really laughing genuinely,” said participant Gabriella Miotto, a family practice physician from California.
During the training, a wide variety of laughter activities were modeled for the leaders-in-training so that they would be able to choose those that best suit their particular audience. Some involve physical touching, some don’t; some involve light aerobic exercise, while others are vocal-based, and so on.
Miotto said she had no prior knowledge of therapeutic laughter, but has experienced the benefits of laughing with her patients.
“We do tend to laugh in the exam room... there is something healing about it but I never thought of it as laughter therapy.”
Miotto, who currently leads a therapeutic art and therapeutic dance class for her patients, hopes to introduce her laughter therapy training into the dance class. She stressed its role as a preventive health measure, like yoga, and its positive effect on relationships.
“People laughing — it changes the whole tenor (of a group),” she said. “You’ve got all these strangers together, but once you’ve laughed together, it’s like the group is different from that moment forward. And that’s a great thing,” Miotto said.
Richardson, a volunteer chaplain who also works for the Juneau Community Charter School and Gastineau Guiding, was inspired to bring the laughter therapy training to town by John Caouette, a local man many appreciated for his huge smile and positive attitude. Caouette, who died in an accident this past October, had previously taken clowning classes and had been enthusiastic about the idea of laughter therapy when Richardson talked to him about it in September.
“I got this brainstorm at his memorial service at the JACC,” Richardson said. “When I was sitting there going ‘What do I do with all this anger at what happened to him and this great sadness in the community and in the school?’ and I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to bring it here.’”
With support from the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council, which donated the venue and provided Richardson with a catalyst grant, and the End of Life Foundation, which donated lunches, she was able to make it happen.
Many studies on the health benefits of laughter have been published; most agree that, at the very least, laughter helps people manage stress, maintain a more positive attitude and even tolerate pain. Many researchers believe laughter can do a lot more, such as prevent heart disease and lower blood pressure, improve immune system functioning, and help manage chronic medical problems from inflammation to eczema.
Richardson said for her the proof of laughter’s benefits exists in the faces and attitudes of those who participate in the groups, herself included.
“You can get lost in the research but the point is, Does this feel good to you? Does this make you feel better, is this helping you deal with your cancer, is this something you enjoy and look forward to?”
One of the benefits of laughter therapy is that participants can take what they’ve learned with them when they leave, and incorporate positive habits into their daily lives.
A spirit of youthful playfulness is also encouraged in the laughter therapy group. According to one study cited in the workshop, children are good role models: children laugh an average of 400 times a day, while adults only manage 15 or 16.
Group leader Fielder, who has been leading her own laughter therapy group in Anchorage for five years, said she finds laughter to be an important “release valve,” not unlike that of crying.
Fielder became involved with laughter therapy after struggling with and beating breast cancer in 2005. She is one of 12 whom World Laughter Tour founder Steve Wilson personally trained to act in his stead in leading the World Laughter Tour trainings.
“He shared his secrets and all this anecdotes and the wonderful things that are just him — between his two ears,” Fielder said.
Psychologist and laugh therapist Wilson was inspired in his work by Dr. Madan Kataria, a doctor from Mumbai, India, who began organizing regular laughter clubs in India in 1995. Wilson, who has been working with therapeutic activity concepts since the 1960s, had been studying therapeutic humor and laughter since 1984. After meeting Kataria, he decided to combine elements of eastern and western philosophies in a new program. So far, about 6,000 people have participated in the training.
In addition to laughter therapy, Wilson promotes a philosophy of “Good Hearted Living” whereby participants are encouraged to consider broad concepts such as gratitude, flexibility and kindness.
“It’s a simple way of seeing how we can live more gently with ourselves and those around us – that’s the way I see it,” said Miotto.
Richardson hopes to start a group at the JACC in near future — she’s hatching ideas for a lunchtime laughter group or even a singles laughter club — using the World Laughter Tour training. The rest of the participants will likely apply what they learned in their workplaces, tailoring the training to meet the needs of their clients or groups.
Richardson said that though CLLs could take what they learned and apply it in a general way to their professional lives, she sees a real benefit in adhering to the model Wilson has set up for CLLs to follow, which includes a systematic approach to the structure of each meeting and the activities that have been found to work well in most groups.
“People can do whatever they want — its laughter, right? — but this particular program is working,” she said.
The organization also provides follow-up services for those who take their training, and can connect professionals in specific fields with their counterparts in other places to create a network and help new leaders learn what has worked with specific populations — such as children, veterans or Alzheimer’s patients — in the past.
In keeping with the open atmosphere, group leaders are encouraged to include fellow staff members and others from their workplace whenever possible. Fielder, who said she still has some of the same group members now as she did when she formed the group five years ago, said she often tries to lure fellow staff members to join, even if its for a few minutes.
“I will pull people out of the hallway to come and play,” said Fieldler. “It chases away the cobwebs.”
• Contact arts editor Amy Fletcher at email@example.com.