People in 'Laughter Groups' Giggle and Guffaw for Better Health

Some people roar, some cackle, some giggle.

Whatever their style, more people are learning that laughing it up is a great way to wind down. And now they're doing it in groups, at so-called "laughter clubs," hundreds of which have sprung up around the country.

Dr. Sushil Bhatia , a full-time businessman and part-time master of laughter, meets once a week with his employees at his small manufacturing company in Framingham, Mass., and tries to get them to laugh.

"The whole idea is to help people relax and let their things go," Bhatia said. "And their minds can open up to things. And that's what laughter does."

Laughing Like Meditating

Bhatia first heard about laughter clubs in his native India. He started his own club four years ago. The 40-minute sessions combine laughter with elements of yoga and meditation.

"Laughter is the shortest form of meditation, because while you're laughing you cannot think of anything else," Bhatia said.

The club's members swear by it.

"Phsyically, it's just very relaxing," said member Mishi Debgan. "I tend to get very tense. I tense up a lot, so for me, it just makes me feel kind of loose and carefree."

In another laughing class in Arlington, Mass., psychologist Lynn Caesar leads a number of exercises to elicit laughter, even encouraging people to fake their laughter until it leads to the real thing.

Andy O'Fleish, a participant in Caesar's class, swears by it. He lost his job a year ago and has been down ever since.

"It's almost like a high, really," O'Fleish said. "It just picks me up. I feel like I have a lot of energy for the rest of the day."

In fact, a recent medical study found a physiological benefit to laughing.

Funny Movies Open Blood Vessels

At the University of Maryland, patients were divided into two groups. One watched the emotionally wrenching World War II movie, "Saving Private Ryan." The others watched the comedy, "There's Something About Mary."

Dr. Michael Miller, a researcher at the university's medical center, said, "After watching a movie that caused stress, the blood vessel lining constricted or partially closed up, whereas after watching a movie that provoked laughter, the blood vessel lining opened up."

In other words, laughing opens up your arteries, allowing blood to flow more freely. The researchers said a few hearty laughs were as good for you as jogging up to half an hour.

Amy Tighe, another member of Caesar's laughter group, said laughing is almost as good as going to the gym.

"I do it because it feels good and it feels like working out," she said.