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Having a Good Laugh

People are getting together to yuk it up, and for no better reason than it feels great.

January 10, 2002|AJAY SINGH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The dozen men and women, many strangers to one another, are gathered on a patch of grass in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, looking a bit nervous about what they might have gotten themselves into. They are standing in a loosely formed circle when Kim Corbin, dressed in bluejeans and a T-shirt that says "Think Globally, Laugh Locally," asks them to hold hands.

She raises a silvery wand like an orchestra conductor: "Ho, ho, ha-ha-ha!" she bellows. "Ho, ho, ha-ha-ha!"

The group gets the idea. "Ho, ho, ha-ha-ha, ho, ho, ha-ha-ha," they say, knowing how silly they look--but gradually realizing being silly doesn't really hurt. What begins as a stifled effort at jollity soon dissolves into spontaneous giggling. Then, it's out and out laughter, prancing-around-in-the-grass kind of laughing. Laughter that makes you feel good even when you don't have a good reason.

Corbin, 32, is a "certified laughter leader"--neither comedian nor humorist but a specialist in pure laughter. And she's just getting started with this group. On her command, the members pounce at each other, grunting loudly, wagging their tongues and pawing the air with imaginary claws.

This, explains Corbin, is "lion laughter," one of about a dozen techniques she teaches. Next comes "chicken skip laughter"--everyone breaks out into titters, moving their upper arms sideways, like birds flapping wings. There's also "silent laughter"--mouths open wide with chuckles, but no sound is produced.

Except for Corbin, nobody in the group has ever laughed this way before.

"It feels great to be connected with everyone," gushes Misha Knowles, a 21-year-old professional skater. Says Barry Marcus, 46, a network administrator, "I'm a laugh-oriented person but I have to say I've never laughed so hard before."

To an outsider, the first impression suggests that this is some kind of crazy congregation: laughing for no evident reason other than perhaps the fact that after days of depressing, rainy weather, San Francisco has been blessed with an unusually sunny Sunday afternoon. "Very San Francisco," says a passerby on hearing the exaggerated laughter. "Only in San Francisco."

San Francisco may be one of the easiest cities in which to hang loose, but it isn't the only place where people meet for no reason other than to laugh their heads off. Across much of the United States, Americans are participating in a curious new phenomenon--some call it a movement--dedicated to laughing for happier, healthier and fuller lives. Many of them meet in public parks or in apartments to giggle, guffaw, chuckle, chortle, screech or titter--anything to surrender to uninhibited laughter.

They're by no means the first to do so. Decades ago, author Norman Cousins launched something of a nationwide movement focused on the healing art of laughter when he evidently cured himself of a degenerative spinal disease by taking huge doses of vitamin C and watching Marx Brothers comedies. "I made the joyous discovery," wrote Cousins in "Anatomy of an Illness," the 1979 book about his dramatic recovery, "that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had a salutary effect on the body's chemistry." Cousins famously called laughter "inner jogging," equating the primal emotion with physical exercise.

The current laughter trend differs from Cousins' in one significant sense: It doesn't at all rely on what psychologists call "cognitive events," such as comedies, humor or jokes.

But that doesn't mean it isn't therapeutic. "We can lower stress hormones in the body through mirthful laughter regardless of how we do it," says Lee Berk, a professor of complementary medicine at UC Irvine and an authority on laughter.

The man behind America's guffawing craze is Steve Wilson, 61, a cherubic psychologist from Columbus, Ohio, who, in turn, was inspired by Madan Kataria, 46, a physician far away in Bombay, India. The "guru of giggling," as Kataria is called, has earned international renown for forming or helping launch some 1,000 "laughter clubs" in India and another 150 or so in Europe, Australia, the far East and lately, the United States.

He came up with the idea of laughter clubs in 1995 after years of observing that his patients' immune systems improved dramatically following bouts of laughter, even the forced kind. Kataria initially enlisted friends to crack jokes every morning at the first club he launched in a Bombay public park. But the group soon ran out of material. The doctor then developed a technique of "thought-free" group laughter based on yoga.

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