A Prescription for Positive Thinking

A Prescription for Positive Thinking

Laughter really is the best medicine. It's proven!

Peggy Stabholz loves to laugh. In fact, that's exactly what she's doing now, on the phone from Canton, Ohio.

Giggling like a teenager, Stabholz recounts her favorite scene from The Pink Panther Strikes Again —where Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling detective played by Peter Sellers, asks an innkeeper about a dog that's next to him.

"Does your dog bite?" Clouseau asks. The innkeeper says no. The detective bends to pet the "nice doggie," who promptly snarls and bites him. "I thought you said your dog did not bite!" Clouseau snaps. "That is not my dog," the innkeeper replies.

Thinking about this classic comedic bit has lightened Stabholz's mood countless times over the years. What's more, describing it has helped her lift the spirits of others she sees, either as a volunteer or in her professional capacity as a clinical and eldercare counselor with Jewish Family Services in Canton.

"I met with this older guy at a hospital," Stabholz recalls. "He said, 'Nothing makes me laugh.' So I told him that Pink Panther scene...and he laughed! He said, 'Oh yeah, I liked those movies. The Three Stooges , too.' When people have been in pain for a long time, they forget what makes them laugh."

Laughter won't necessarily solve their problems or erase their hurt. "But it can help them heal," says Stabholz, who has seen its positive effects on people with diseases like cancer, MS and depression.

Increasing numbers of Americans are turning to laughter exercises as a tool for boosting their emotional and physical well-being. Many are learning these exercises in laughter clubs run by the nearly 2,000 "certified laughter leaders" (including Stabholz) trained by psychologist and self-proclaimed "joyologist" Steve Wilson.

Some folks, in their retirement years, have been getting laughs in a different kind of club. They're performing in comedy clubs. "I had an 82-year-old man who rocked the house at the Hollywood Improv," says comedian Barry Weisenberg, who teaches stand-up comedy classes in Southern California and has his L.A. students perform at the Improv for their final exam.

Weisenberg can understand why the 55-plus crowd is into doing stand-up. He says nothing feels better than expressing yourself onstage and making people laugh.

Nothing, that is, except laughing yourself. Sebastien Gendry of Pasadena, California, knows. He was so unhappy in his telemarketing job that he says, "I felt like I was dying inside."

Then he discovered laughter yoga, a combination of laughing exercises and yoga breathing developed by physician Madan Kataria in India. "It allowed me to laugh at my situation," says Gendry. "Nothing in my world has changed, but how I relate to the world around me has changed." His experience inspired him to start the American School of Laughter Yoga.

Even the U.S. military has gotten in on the act. Its laugh leader is Army Reserve Colonel James "Scotty" Scott. As director of the Pentagon's Individual and Family Support Policy, he uses laughter therapy to help families of reservists who are about to be deployed to Iraq.

His sessions with military families follow the format common to most laughter clubs. No one-liners and rimshots here, but a series of exercises that celebrate playfulness.

First, participants are asked to simulate the sound of laughter—they chant something like "Ho, ho, ha-ha-ha!" and repeat it a number of times. Since there aren't gags or punch lines to elicit chuckles, laughter has to be faked at first. That's okay: Manufactured giggles quickly turn into the real thing.

Group dynamics helps (laughter really is infectious!), as do activities like laughing while doing exaggerated imitations of animals (waddle like a penguin, roar like a lion) or pretending to have an animated phone conversation (gestures and all).

"Something very powerful happens when you laugh, or just think about laughing," Scott says. "You can't think about anything else. The stress stops immediately." However brief, these respites from fear and worry are necessary.