“You don't stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing.” -Michael Pritchard
“Ho. Ho. Ha. Ha. Ha,” Our instructor chanted with arms raised.
My 14-year old son gave me a sheepish grin while his eyes conveyed the question “what have you gotten us into?”
I bribed him and his five-year-old sister with the promise of going to Downtown Disney later if they would make the hour and half drive with me to check out a “laughter yoga” class in Orlando. I wanted to learn more about the concept of voluntary laughter and meet Pat Conklin, Central Florida’s specialist in laughter for wellness, a member of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor and a self-described fun-raiser.
“Grab your imaginary bat. When you swing, I want you to hit that belly laugh out of the park, then run the bases, high-fiving each other.” Pat took us through a series of scenarios meant to get our intimate group of seven moving, and laughing together.
Pat received her training from the creator of laughter yoga, Dr. Madan Kataria. Kataria began with aclass of five people in a public park in Mumbai, India in 1995. Today, there are thousands of clubs meeting regularly in 72 countries. Kataria was at the forefront of a medical movement that recognizes laughter really is the best medicine. Since Kataria published Laugh For No Reason in 1999, there have been numerous studies that found laughing: reduces stress, increases tolerance for pain, lowers blood pressure, increases emotional resilience, relaxes muscles, elevates moods, and improves oxygen levels. Researcher Norman Cousins likened laughing to “internal jogging for all major organs.” 10 minutes of laughing a day reportedly burns as many calories as a half-hour workout. It helped Pat out of depression and she believes it gave one of her first laugh club members, who had stage-four colon cancer, a few more birthdays than she ever dreamed possible.
There is now even a new funny name for scientists who study laughter and its effects on the body. Gelotologists. The word conjures up images of someone playing with green jello in my mind. While the name may be silly, laughing has little to do with humor. In Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, Dr. Robert Provine found jokes only triggered laughter about 15% of the time. Subjects were 30 times more likely to laugh in a group compared to laughing alone. Provine concluded people’s bodies aren’t responding to punchlines, but rather to the social connections deepened by laughter.
“Ok, pretend you are on your phone and someone is telling you something hilarious. Walk around, looking at each other while referencing the call you’re on by simply laughing,” Pat coached us.
Studies show children laugh an average of 300 times a day while adults only laugh 17 times a day. Not surprisingly, my 5-year-old daughter was a natural. She easily played along by diving into a pool of giggles with some of the class regulars, who ranged in age from their mid-fifties to eighties. Laughter yoga is the only technique that allows adults to achieve sustained laughter without cognitive thought by practicing laughter as a form of physical exercise, combined with childlike playfulness and eye contact in a group setting. The theory is that your body can’t tell the difference between purposeful laughter and spontaneous laughter. It’s all good. Not to mention, even purposeful laughter is contagious. Pretty soon, my son and I couldn’t look at each other without cracking up. (A note to other parents of teens: I gave him the option of playing on his iPhone in the lobby during the class or joining us with a promise that no pictures would end up on Facebook.) His curiosity got the best of him. Laughter isn’t just contagious, it’s irresistible and universal. Laughter is a biological reaction as natural as breathing. Babies start laughing at the age of four months. Even animal laugh. No matter where you live in the world, laughter sounds the same in every language.
Pat concluded the hour-long class by asking us to savor the joy we had just experienced and to share it with others. As promised, I took the kids to Downtown Disney for lunch. We were surrounded by tourists and no shortage of entertainment options, yet I was struck by the number of people silently staring at their phones. Some, no doubt, traveled great distances to be together- alone. Something was fundamentally missing. Suddenly, spending three hours round trip in the car with my kids for our laughter class didn’t seem like such a long way to go.How often do you laugh?