THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


The Art of Amusement

by Sienna Zeilinger

Illustration by Polina Volfovich

published March 13, 2015


 

The Providence Laughter Club meets downtown on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month, on the sixth floor of 18 Imperial Place, which is where I sit cross-legged one February evening on one of 15 purple pillows arranged in a circle on the ground. I have never been to Laughter Club before; I’m here because I’m madly curious and was tired of just reading about the practice. Plus, today is the Providence chapter’s third birthday, and the promise of free cake advertised on their Facebook page provided an additional incentive. Because there are a fair number of us who are new to the joy of laughing together, Rebecca Foster, certified laughter life coach and the leader of our group, explains the process. We are here just to laugh, not laugh at or because of or in response to. We are going to say “ha ha ha” or “ho ho ho” even if we don’t feel spontaneous laughter emerging yet. We are going to set an intention to acknowledge the child deep inside us and play.

People keep coming in, half-waving so as not to interrupt, and squeezing themselves into the circle. A tiny woman whose name I don’t catch chuckles behind one hand as she takes a seat. Lynn, draped in a rainbow garment I cannot confidently identify as either shawl, blouse, or Technicolor dreamcoat can’t even finish waving before two of the dozen or so regulars start to titter. “We have some beautiful laughers here tonight,” Rebecca explains, and Lynn blushes with pride.

The circle expands to let the newcomers have some room. “They must have heard I was bringing cake!” Rebecca says.

“HA HA HA,” I say.

 

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The founder of Laughter Yoga is a middle-aged doctor from Mumbai named Madan Kataria, who was astounded by the positive effects of laughter he’d read about in medical journals and wanted to find a way to incorporate those benefits into the lives of his patients. Laughter Yoga began in 1995 with five people telling jokes in a Mumbai park. After about 10 days, when the jokes turned vulgar and then ran out, Kataria had to come up with a new plan.

Struck by psychologist and motivational speaker Harry Olson’s idea that “you have to start somewhere, even if it means going through the motions at first,” Kataria revamped his club. He took Olson’s idea back to the park, combining fake group laughter with deep breathing exercises, and his club took off. People were faking laughter by the hundreds, then by the thousands. Kataria claims that there are currently clubs in over 70 countries, each looking to his club for laughter exercise ideas. “The body cannot differentiate between fake and real laughter,” Kataria declares on his official website.

While I cannot find any scientific evidence to support this particular claim, across disciplines there does seem to be significant confirmation of somatic benefits to laughing. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford, suggests that an increase in endorphins can result from “the simple muscular exertions involved in producing the familiar ha, ha, ha.” Dunbar conducted experiments in which he found that individual subjects’ pain thresholds increased significantly after they watched videos of comedy groups, whereas “simple good feeling in a group” had no effect. Political journalist Norman Cousins wrote that, while suffering from life-threatening heart disease, “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.” Nobody’s going so far as to assert that laughter is the best medicine, but I suspect that at least Kataria quietly believes it.

 

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We are to go around the circle and say our first name, followed by a round of group laughter. Mercifully, we’re going clockwise, so I’ll speak last. Rebecca demonstrates: “My name is Rebecca—” and then collapses, as in genuflects until her forehead touches the ground, the whole time cackling without reservation. It’s really a cackle, too, punctuated by long E’s and short A’s, and it’s loud, and then she rights herself and it ends, not exactly in a manner that one could call abrupt, but without any of the customary sighing or tapering off into chuckling that would ordinarily follow a bout of laughter like this.

As we make our way around the circle, I grow increasingly distracted by just how many species of laughter there appear to be. In this room alone, there is cackling, hooting, chuckling, tittering. Heads are thrown back, held in hands, shaken from side to side. Legs come unfolded and kick out like a puppy’s. There is shaking, rocking. If the hands move anywhere, it’s to the face, or otherwise they slap the thighs or floor with a violence that gets no less startling with repetition.

When it gets to me, I do my duty, erupting in forced laughter several times. As for real chuckling, though, that’s yet to happen. “My name is Sienna, ha ha ha,” I say, and everyone bubbles over, saving their loudest laughs for last. Rebecca howls. I have the urge to reassure everyone that it’s okay with me if they’d rather just smile or give a nod; I won’t be offended.

 

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A complicating factor in the conversation about laughter’s health benefits is that there are always too many variables in any given experiment. Robert R. Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland and author of Laughter: a Scientific Investigation, has failed to find that laughter causes much benefit; he instead concludes that it may be that other environmental factors are responsible for these health effects. “Laughter is social,” he explains, “so any health benefits might really come from being close with friends and family, and not the laughter itself.” And scientists have not been able to create an isolated environment where natural laughter still arises.

Rebecca agrees: the social aspect of laughing is perhaps even more important than the laughter itself. She tells me that as she’s become more involved with the Laughter Yoga community, she’s noticed that the actual act of giggling has taken a backseat. These days, she says, “It’s not so much about laughing. It’s about playing and connecting in ways that we have sort of isolated ourselves from doing.”

Greg Bryant, a laughter expert and professor at UCLA, explains that researchers now think that laughter is the evolutionary product of labored breathing during physical play. There’s a difference between types of laughter, though. Genuine laughs come from “an emotional vocal system,” Bryant says, “whereas fake laughs are produced by a speech system.” Genuine laughter is associated with unmediated intakes of breath. And, researchers take care to note, while humans are far from the only species to genuinely laugh, we’re the only one that ever tries to fake it.

 

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We are apparently ready to begin Dancing Like Animals. I have a great deal of questions, all of which could be satisfied by referring to the title of our activity and believing in myself, so I keep my mouth shut and watch Rebecca fold into herself over the iPod dock on the floor.

“Let’s go with… okay, choose one: shark, whale, or barracuda.”

I’ve been obsessed with whales to a conversationally unacceptable degree ever since I first read Moby Dick. As instructed, I wiggle my body to get limber, and the music comes on.

I let my jaw go slack and lumber as slowly as I can across the room, occasionally making my hands into a blowhole above my head and pluming bursts of staccato heh-heh-hehs. Everyone seems to know what a barracuda sounds like. Tom has fashioned a formidable dorsal fin out of his own big hands and is gazing upon us all from his wide orbit, grinning broadly, uttering a deep and sporadic “ho.” I appraise the scene: 15 adults in a brightly lit room above a near-bankrupt city, emulating, to the best of our ability, the very creatures our seaward window overlooks, chortling. I really am trying to dance like a whale. I want this to be a liberating moment. But it’s just silly. I can feel my dignity diminishing with every prance, every leap.

 

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We laugh as if we are shy, walking with slow, tiny steps, giggling behind our palms. We laugh as if we are congratulating each other. We laugh as if we have just seen each other in the airport for the first time in ages and are greeting each other with full hearts—Yuri and I lock eyes from opposite sides of the room and he takes this as a green light, loping toward me, guffawing, gaining speed, never breaking eye contact, opening his arms wider and wider until he suffocates me in a jubilant hug. It’s well-intentioned, but I’m uncomfortable all the same: we’re occupying the same square foot of space, for one, but we’re also acting as if we mean to uphold some connection when it just isn’t there—we’re not in an airport, we don’t know each other’s last names, we have never seen each other before. There is no love here. His hug feels the same as a hug he’d give if he meant it, but there’s nothing to mean, and I pull away.

 

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One reason why we’re lucky to be mammals: to a certain extent, we exist beyond the bounds of our own bodies. To call it empathy is to brush over the biology of the matter. Our limbic systems are so attuned to each other’s that our brain chemistry synchronizes with those we’re closest to. We mirror yawns, hiccups, smiles.

What’s really going on here reflects an intimate interdependence on each other, one that profoundly impacts our emotional development. From day one, we’re wordlessly sensing, shaping, and being influenced by each other, unconsciously making good on our biological pact to teach each other how to be in and of this world.

And it turns out there are deep neurological consequences of missing out on these shared emotionally intimate experiences. If, as an infant, nobody spends time gazing into your eyes, you will grow up guarded and wary of others. If you sleep alone, far from your mother’s heartbeat, it will take you much longer to adopt consistent sleep stages and a strong immune system. If you are deprived of vocal and physical affection, one alarming study found, you will simply die.

 

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To cast off the pursuit of joy as childish is “a disservice to yourself and to the world,” Rebecca tells me when we chat on the phone. The thing is, watching adults pretend to be children is unsettling. I’m on the precipice of adulthood, and I’d like to think it’s possible—unquestionably possible—to experience adult joy. But at Laughter Club, the only way to attain joy is to be a child again. It’s a Sisyphean task no matter how supportive the community, and there’s a terrible sadness in watching them continue to try. Not to mention it’s a strange activity in the first place, deliberately trying to laugh.

 

Now, though, I find myself thinking back to Rebecca’s initial instructions. “We are going to set an intention,” she said. We are going to play. We are going to laugh.

These people are making the choice to come to Laughter Club, to pay the suggested $2 or $3, to disregard questions of authenticity or realness and simply engage in primal and necessary joy. However childish Laughter Club may be on the surface, I have to admit there’s something edging toward responsible, even mature, about deciding to take control like that: to say, I will access joy, and in so doing, to claim authorship of your own amusement.

 

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This quickness to mirror each other’s laughter is a source of comfort when you consider the overwhelming evidence of humans’ tendency toward negativity. Our brains, conditioned by generations of responses to Stone Age stressors, are still more efficient at learning from a negative stimulus than from a positive one of the same emotional charge. Rick Hanson writes about this phenomenon in his book Hardwiring Happiness. This negativity bias, he has said, is “like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good. [It] makes us extra stressed, worried, irritated, and blue.”

“So in that sense,” Rebecca explains, “there’s a completely neurologically sound reason for practicing happiness. There’s the importance of correcting for this thing that hasn’t really caught up with our biology. How do you train the brain to actually better serve us? We’re creating a neurological highway toward laughter.”

 

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 “I went and played with Dr. Kataria in Mexico,” Rebecca says, nonchalantly, and I do a double take. I had no idea she trained with him. She can’t remember when she met him, either. When asked, she laughs about the concept of time.

In Mexico, there were challenges within Rebecca’s training group: firstly, the participants, citizens of a dozen different countries, couldn’t understand each other. And it was not immediately an atmosphere of positivity. “A lot of people who were there were in the midst of major life challenges. Terminal health issues, or a spouse who committed suicide—crazy, crazy difficult stuff,” she recalls.

But they soon realized that laughter could be their universal language. And with it, they were able to speak. According to Rebecca, it was as if they were saying, “I am not going to meet my life from that place of darkness. I am going to meet it from a different place.” It was a room full of people, she said, making that choice consciously, repeatedly. “And so there was just this really profound sense of, like, wow, this is the world I want to live in.”

 

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On the way back home from a swim at the beach with my family one summer night, the engine of our car dies a sudden death—simply gives out, stops going. We pull over, call AAA, and huddle together shivering on the side of RI Route 4 in the waning Friday light. And then, even more abruptly, we stumble, and with our arms around each other, we are falling, tumbling down the grassy hill away from the highway, coming to a halt on our backs, tangled in a sandy heap under the stars. In the moment when we break this silence, we could shout or murmur curses, or mourn our beloved little car, or throw up our hands to the sky, or groan, or shake our heads, or anything—we could do anything. And yet, of course, when the moment actually arrives, there is really nothing to do at all but laugh.

 

SIENNA ZEILINGER B’15 thought she tittered, but figured out she chortles.