Laughter May Be the Best Medicine

Maybe that guy at the office who deliberately laughs at the boss's jokes has it right. A carefully cultivated ability to giggle might help you and the people around you feel better.

In hospitals, nursing homes and private clubs all around the country, "certified laughter leaders" are teaching the therapeutic value of mirth, not by telling jokes, but simply pretending to laugh, so that forced hee-hee-hees eventually become honest-to-goodness giggles.

At the Midwestern Regional Medical Center in Zion, Ill., part of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, laughter leader Katherine Puckett has patients pretend to put ice down each other's backs. At first, the patients pretend to laugh. Then it becomes so easy that they're cracking up unself-consciously.

"Remember that feeling you had giggling uncontrollably as a kid?" said Puckett, the hospital's director of mind-body medicine. "You still need it, especially if you're ill."

A growing body of research supports the theory that laughter has a therapeutic value. A good gut-buster not only helps the spirit, it gets the blood pumping, just like jogging -- only it's a workout that even hospital patients can enjoy.

Laugh on a regular basis, and you can even boost your immune system, according to some research.

A study of 20 men and women conducted at the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that 95 percent of the volunteers experienced increased blood flow while watching a funny movie, such as "There's Something About Mary," while 74 percent had decreased blood flow during a heavier picture, such as "Saving Private Ryan." The benefits lasted about 12 to 24 hours.

The results, presented at a March meeting of the American College of Cardiology, point to a strong connection between laughter and cardiovascular health.

"The recommendation for a healthy heart may one day be to exercise, eat right and laugh a few times a day," said Dr. Michael Miller, who conducted the study.

Learning to Get in the Right Frame of Mind

To be sure, America has no shortage of goofball comedies, and most of us spend enough time watching them. But sometimes that's not enough.

"Jokes are great. But you watch TV shows and movies, even really good ones, you generally don't laugh for any sustained period," said psychologist Steve Wilson. "You laugh more when you're in a comfortable environment with friends."

Wilson trains and certifies "laughter leaders" like Puckett to go into hospitals, hospices and help centers for the disabled. These instructors teach the art of chortling -- largely by pretending to chortle. A good part of the lessons involve students repeating the key phrases "ha-ha-ha," "hee-hee-hee" and "ho-ho-ho."

"What we do is go through exercises that help people learn to get themselves in a frame of mind to laugh harder and more frequently," said Wilson.

He started the World Laughter Tour after traveling in 1998 to India, where he met Dr. Madan Kataria, a physician who originated laughter clubs.

"Eastern meditation has always stressed breathing exercises, and laughter works as a form of breathing that massages your internal organs, and relaxes the muscles," Wilson said. "In India, you'll find laughing gurus, and I thought that this teaching could be adapted for Americans."

Since 2000, Wilson said, he has trained more than 1,500 laughter leaders who have created about 200 laughter clubs, a large number of them associated with hospitals, nursing homes and churches.

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