ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

This is Not a Joke

Can pretending to ride the subway, leaning into the turns and toppling fellow passengers, relieve stress?

Apparently, if the conductor is a certified laughter leader and the strap-hangers are willing to force a few laughs.

"Let's do subway! Lean to the right, to the left!" barked Jolene Nevers, above a chorus of loud but faked ha-has that morphed into a real giggle here, a bona fide titter there.

"You end up actually laughing," said Karissa Covelli, 19, who joined a group of eight men and women for a laugh-therapy session at the University of Connecticut's Health Education Center last week. The 20-minute session dissolved the day's frustrations and a crabby mood, Covelli said. "I feel a lot better now."

Amid a merciless economy that has stripped millions of Americans of their jobs or homes or trapped them in the quicksand of debt, fitting fun into their lives is serious stuff. Laughter, researchers conclude, is nothing to joke about.

Laughter therapy reduced cholesterol and lowered inflammation in a group of diabetics with high blood pressure, according to a study this spring by doctors at Loma Linda University. Their findings jibe with a 2005 study by the University of Maryland's Center for Preventive Cardiology, which found that laughing relieves stress. Stress can damage the endothelium, the protective barrier that lines the blood vessels and lead to the build up of fat and cholesterol, factors in heart attack, said Dr. Michael Miller, the center's director.

"We know that exercising, not smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease," Miller said. "Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list."

Laughter as therapy traces its roots to a 1979 book by Norman Cousins, "Anatomy of an Illness." Cousins, who was suffering from a debilitating form of arthritis, reasoned that if stress worsened illness, laughter could alleviate some of the aches and pains.

In 1995, Dr. Madan Kataria started a laughter club in Mumbai, India, that was loosely based on yoga, laughter and role-playing. Today, there are more than 6,000 clubs in India, many of which meet daily before the work day begins.

Mark Sherry, a Hartford-area business owner with a master's degree in psychology, is a certified laughter yoga leader. Sherry, who received his credentials from Laughter Yoga International, which was founded by Kataria, began leading laughter groups in mid-2008.

Sherry, 59, typically asks for a donation of $3 to $6 for a 45-minute group session, a bargain for anyone, including the jobless. In recent months, many unemployed workers have bolstered their spirits by bearing their teeth, spreading their claws and acting like lions or penguins or pretending to be lottery winners, Sherry said.

Even Sigmund Freud, the stern, cigar-smoking founder of psychoanalysis, recognized the power of humor. In a slim volume entitled "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious."

Levity, the father of psychoanalysis concluded, allows us to express repressed thoughts in a socially acceptable format. Translated: It's OK to crack a joke or imagine how Freud might have looked in a phony nose and glasses, or how his id might have fared alongside the Marx Brothers.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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