Allen Klein wanted a roomful of negative thoughts, and, if facial expressions were an indication, he was getting them. He had just told the nearly 20 members of his class, who were seated in a semicircle, to shut their eyes and think of something depressing.
All around the room, faces began to fall under the weight of memories of speeding tickets, broken love affairs, nasty bosses, lost luggage, traffic jams, overdue bills and the IRS.
Into this morass of gloom stepped Klein, armed with a bagful of red plastic balls. He handed one to each student and said, "Now put these on your nose, open your eyes and see what you all look like."
In seconds, the mental goblins were being swept away on waves of laughter. The realization dawned quickly on the class that there was no way to stay dignified--let alone depressed--while sporting a red clown nose.
"So, what happened to all the bad thoughts?" asked Klein triumphantly. "You all look great. You look like a patch of cherry tomatoes."
Klein was leading the group on a three-hour odyssey in search of the funny bone at Saddleback College. His one-night class was called, "You've Got to Be Kidding: The Healing Power of Humor."
Klein is a gelotologist--one who studies humor. But he refers to himself as a "jolly-tologist" who sees sober-mindedness as no virtue and silliness as no vice.
"Most adult people laugh an average of 15 times a day," he said, "but most children laugh upwards of 400 times. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we've lost more than 385 laughs per day."
A merry heart is made, he said, not born. "All you have to do is look around you. There's guaranteed laughter all over the universe, if you choose to see it."
Designed principally for health care professionals, his class operates on the principle that laughter can indeed be the best medicine. "We know we feel better when we're laughing and having a good time," Klein told the class early on. "It's really as simple as that."
His students seemed to believe it. After three hours of gags, wry asides, jokes, broad role-playing, cozy reminiscences and several occasions when everyone was simply given permission to act silly, most students said they felt uplifted and "re-energized."
Health care workers received professional credit for attending because "the therapeutic value of humor in healing is becoming very well recognized," said Susan Gordon, community services director of Saddleback College. "As a health care practitioner they themselves must be able to express this to the patient to help lighten the situation." Health providers from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., are using old Candid Camera tapes as therapy with patients, she added.
Klein believes that developing and communicating a sense of humor, particularly in often less-than-humorous surroundings such as a hospital, requires dedication, inventiveness and, most of all, practice.
A few of his examples:
- Instead of talking to one another over the copy machine or the desk, a group of nurses at one hospital decided occasionally to sing their conversations or requests to each other. "They called it their light opera day."
- Another group of nurses regularly exchanged their traditional starched caps for other headgear, such as Mickey Mouse ears, construction workers' hard hats and football helmets. Doctors sometimes wore fake arrows-through-the-head, Klein said.
- Faced with an unpleasant or boring task, one group of hospital workers adopted the slogan--always spoken with exaggerated breathless enthusiasm--"Oh! What an opportunity for growth and learning!"
- Klein's own roommate, a marriage, family and child counselor, developed a unique method of loosening up a session with a patient that seemed to be bogging down. "He had this big, inflatable Godzilla doll in the next room, and if things weren't going so well he'd say, 'Wait a minute. I need to bring in a consultant.' And he'd bring the Godzilla doll back."
Laughter's Medicine Uses
Klein, 48, who lives in San Francisco, has lectured on the therapeutic uses of laughter to people working in all fields throughout the country but has concentrated on teaching health care professionals. His interest in humor as a healing tool began nearly nine years ago when his wife was dying of a rare liver disease. Her light heart carried them both through the ordeal, he said.
"For example," he said, "she was reading Playgirl one day and she wanted me to put the male center fold on the wall of her hospital room. We didn't think the hospital would go for showing everything, so we tacked up a leaf over part of the picture. Well, on the third day, the leaf started shriveling up. . . . When she finally came home, neither of us could look at a leaf and not giggle. It was like cold water on your face on a hot day."