ANN ARBOR, Mich. — For Lila Green's last birthday, her five children rented a movie marquee and put up the message, "Lila Green is 60! Happy Birthday!" They hung a king-size sheet with the same message from the roof of her home.
Lila Green loved it. "I feel wonderful about 60; besides, I have no choice."
But, then, humor is what Green does for a living.
Green, who left her job as a program consultant for the University of Michigan's Institute of Gerontology, is spreading her gospel of making humor part of people's lives.
Besides being a guest lecturer at the school, she has given dozens of seminars to groups as diverse as funeral directors, nursing home administrators and dairy farmers.
"We all start life with a sense of humor, but it gets knocked out of us. The messages we get are: 'Wipe that smile off your face,' 'Act your age,' 'Don't laugh in church.' And we separate learning and work and play too much," Green said.
Humor is hot--people seem to really need a good laugh, she said.
She gets no disagreement from Joel Goodman, founder of The HUMOR Project in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "It's a worldwide . . . phenomenon."
More than 250,000 people have attended the 13-year-old group's humor workshops. More than 1,000 showed up for this year's convention, and last spring he took his show on the road in the Soviet Union.
Demand is growing for seminars on the uses of humor for companies, including IBM and Monsanto Co., civic groups and other organizations.
Humor is showing up as a balm for the sick also. Swedish researcher Lars Ljungdahl described in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. last year how humor therapy might improve patients' quality of life.
Several researchers are investigating the theory that humor can help healing, an idea popularized by the late Norman Cousins' book "Anatomy of an Illness," which described how laughter enhanced his recovery from a painful disease.
Humor is even seeping into religion, said Cal Samra of the Kalamazoo-based Fellowship of Merry Christians, a coalition of 13,000 people from various religions. "Humor is a powerful evangelical tool. Pastors are just rediscovering it. In religion, we see it burgeoning.
Lila Green, who has attended HUMOR Project functions, was developing training materials for people who work with Alzheimer's patients when her serious interest in humor began.
"They couldn't remember the names of their spouses or their children. But they could tell a long joke. It seemed the emotional memory of shared laughter was one of the last things to go. This intrigued me," she said.
She did her own research on adding levity to life and developed her humor program. After a few seminars, word of mouth prompted more groups to ask her to speak.
"Just talking about something positive can make you smile," said Green. And, she added, people should remember one thing: "It's never too late to have a happy childhood."
Here is Green's list of ways to cultivate humor in your life:
* Collect humorous material from favorite comedy writers.
* Collect cartoons and jokes to share with friends and family.
* Use exaggeration to help get perspective. Jokingly expand the situation to life-and-death proportions.
--Be more playful. Try being dramatic and silly. Others pick up your spirit and laughter.
* Remember stories from your life that, in retrospect, are humorous. Offer these anecdotes when others encounter problems.
* Create a humorous motto. Example: "As soon as you get to the top of the ladder, you discover it's leaning against the wrong wall."
* Create regular intervals to share humor with family and friends. Joke around at meals, place cartoons in lunch boxes, watch a regular TV comedy show.