This Is Not A Joke: Laughter Therapy' Growing In Popularity As Way To Fight Stress

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."

"Laughter clubs are a form of structured play," said Nevers, a university health-education coordinator, and a laughter leader certified by World Laughter Tour Inc., which provides training and support for those seeking mirth. Nevers learned about the laughter-therapy movement at an American College Health Association conference two years ago.

"As adults, we have to work fun and play into our lives," said Nevers, flushed and thirsty after 20 minutes of directing a half-dozen exercises, including pretend rides on a subway and a roller coaster.

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."

But does forced laughter, as practiced by laughter-therapy enthusiasts, provide the same benefits as real laughter? According to some studies, the brain doesn't know the difference between the two. Endorphins, the body's happy hormones, are released when we laugh or simulate laughter, according to Charles Schaefer, a psychology professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J.

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.

"I've had a number of people who've shared that they're out of work and need to laugh," said Sherry, whose background includes working with special-education students and stand-up comedy.

"At the last session I did at the Enfield Senior Center, I had a woman come up to me whose husband had died just two months before," said Sherry, who has conducted sessions for as few as two people and as many as 100. "She had not laughed since then. She thanked me for getting her out of her shell. Another woman who was in her 80s said her boyfriend had just died the day before. She said it was wonderful, incredible therapy for her.

"You don't have to have lost somebody to benefit from it. That's the extreme."

Kerry Truchan, 36, found one of his groups this summer on www.meetup.com, a site that helps users find, or organize, local groups.

"I didn't know what to think," said Truchan, who attended a 45-minute laughter yoga.

"I thought it was kind of silly, but some of the exercises were really fun. We had to pretend we won bags of money and carry them around. I kind of wished it was real!

"In another exercise, we had to pretend we were penguins. It made me realize that I don't laugh enough in my life. I told my sister about it. I told my parents," said Truchan, of Ludlow, Mass., who drove 30 minutes to attend a second session earlier this month in Enfield.

Sherry said laughter therapy "is the kind of therapy that therapists also benefit from." But Sherry added that it isn't a substitute for people requiring the care of a psychologist or psychiatrist. But for someone beset by day-to-day worries, it can help them become unstuck. Laughter provides an emotional release and has physical effects. It can break down cortisol, the hormone released when the body is under stress, and increase production of endorphins, Sherry said.

At the group level, "It helps people bond. All the pretense is just dropped, Sherry said. "What is it that Alan Alda says? 'It's hard to kill someone when you're laughing.'"

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," Freud analyzed several archetypal forms of humor, including wordplay and practical jokes.

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.

Laughter therapy's faked howls and phony guffaws is not for everyone.

"It's not my favorite thing to do," said Julianne Ceruti, who participated in the recent session at UConn. "I attended to show support for my fellow students."

Ceruti, 20, works in the Health Education office and is majoring in audiology. "I feel like I laugh a lot in my day-to-day life," Ceruti said. "I'm a happy person. Forced laughter is awkward."

But, she added, "I think it's something that people should at least try."

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