Friday, July 13, 2007

My history with the healing power of laughter.

In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer-Albert Camus

In 1996 I moved to Chicago to fulfill a lifelong dream to perform as a comedian. With this in mind, I enrolled in classes at the world famous Second City, and within a few months had performed in a couple of shows around the city, it was the least funny time in my life. What I hadn't counted on was the "business" side of comedy that eventually reared its ugly head, and soon, in the midst of this environment, I found a great deal of the joy and enthusiasm I had for making people laugh had slowly disappeared. Still I soldiered on, and along the way met some very funny people, who, like myself, were also deeply flawed. It was during this period of my life when I truly began to understand the relationship between comedy and pain as I continued to observe my fellow performers, along with hearing anecdotes about former Second City stars like John Belushi and Chris Farley. This relationship between comedy and pain would eventually be the basis of my first book

Eventually I left this little world in Chicago, and took a job working as an entertainer in a nursing home where I was quickly assigned to the Alzheimer's unit. I was making 8 dollars an hour, driving a shitty car, and living in an apartment without hot water, it was the happiest time of my life.

Working with seniors and making them laugh in the last days of their lives was an incredibly powerful experience, and soon the joy that originated from the power of laughter was back in my life. Although the job was often very difficult, the little moments throughout the day where I was able to bring someone back from the brink of despair with some silly gesture made it all worthwhile. It was while working this job that I came to an amazing conclusion; laughter can save lives.

Now I understand this is an extraordinary claim, and my own personal evidence was to this point based primarily on a few observations, but I knew I has witnessed something very powerful. Suddenly people who hadn't spoken in years were laughing and singing and dancing, and people who otherwise laid in bed all day were now eagerly getting up in the morning.

Lest I take full credit for getting these people out of bed, I want to make clear that it was not my jokes that were creating these changes, but simply the act of laughing itself. Although these people's memories had in many ways failed them, the stimulation they received from the physical act of laughing created changes that were clearly visible. The communal act of getting people together and simply laughing is utterly contagious, and despite their cognitive deficits, it was my experience that they still had a deep rooted desire to share in the laughter. Soon we were spending afternoons sitting in a circle sharing stories, and inevitably someone would begin laughing, often when it was at an utterly inappropriate point in the conversation. Soon the stories would end, and the laughter would spread throughout the room like a virus. During my first few weeks nurses would often come running into the room, sure that something was horribly wrong. I had disrupted their peace and quiet and also challenged their idea that these patients were "too far gone" to experience joy. Soon they were also on board however, unable to resist the contagiousness of unbridled silliness.

Eventually I would write a book about my experiences working with Alzheimer's patients
and looking back this was the happiest time of my life. Although I had come to Chicago to work as a comedian, I had found something infinitely more valuable through using the power of laughter to serve other people. This experience set me on a path to discover just what it was about laughter that was so powerful, and this is a journey I will continue to follow for the rest of my life. In conducting this research I have heard some truly amazing stories, and have also continued to conduct my own experiences in some highly unusual places. These stories and my continuing research will be the basis of this blog, and I hope these stories will inspire others to share their own stories about the healing power of laughter.

Laughter Clubs

The idea of laughter clubs began in India in 1995 when a doctor named Madan Kataria went down to his local park and began laughing. Soon a few others joined him, and within a couple of days 50 people had begun laughing along within him. Kataria had read hundreds of articles about the healing powers of humor, and set out to explore the question if there was any real difference in the body between laughing at things people found naturally funny, and simply laughing for the sake of laughing. Kataria's research and his own experiences soon convinced him that the body's immune system was unable to distinguish between the two. Kataria's wife, a yoga teacher, soon added to her husband's discovery, and added Yoga and breathing exercises to her husband's laughter exercises, and their collaboration would pave the way for the creation of laughter clubs, which now number more than 5,000 around the world.

So it was with great eagerness that I attended my first laughter club in a cozy little setting not far from my home, but even still I was very nervous as I wondered if I would be able to just laugh for no reason without something actually being funny. I thought back to my days working as an activity director at a nursing home where the things I said while trying to be funny were often met with blank stares, and how the things I said in seriousness often resulted in gales of laughter from my audience. This thought alone got me laughing at myself, and when I met the director of the club Alex, I knew I would immediately find something to laugh about.
Alex was one of those guys whose very presence makes people laugh. He is one of those people who look like they are on the verge of laughing at all times, and being in his presence was a contagious force that I was quickly taken with. After a few minutes of good-natured bantering he introduced me around, and I was a little taken aback when people would burst out laughing simply from me introducing myself, and couldn't help but wonder if they were all in on some joke that at my expense. Soon I discovered their secret however, and it was one I had experienced often in my own life, and that is, simply, that laughter begets laughter. Much like how seeing someone yawn often spreads an epidemic of yawning, laughing had the same effect, and soon I was in the middle of this wonderful crowd right in the heart of the action. Often in my life my jokes are met with polite courtesy laughs and then people politely excusing themselves, but in this room I cold do no wrong. Seeing how easily these people burst into real deep down belly laughs was inspiring, and at the end of the hour, I felt more energized than I had in quite some time.

What had happened to me? Although I enjoy laughing very much, I had a hard time remembering how many times in my life I could truly remembering laughing at something so hard that I literally couldn't stop, but the times I did remember were some of the happiest of my life. Yet these people seemed to turn it on and off so naturally and I was baffled at how they did this so easily. After the session was over I spoke with Alex and heard some amazing stories. Many of the people in attendance that day were cancer survivors, some had experienced horrible childhood trauma, while still others had recently been through a divorce or some other major recent loss. I thought surely when I looked around that I was the most messed up person there, but after hearing Alex talk I reconsidered. The main point I took away from our conversation that day was that it was not what had happened to them in their lives, but how they chose to live afterwards that mattered, which is something I had of course heard during my academic studies but had rarely seen any real life examples of.

I left that day a true believer in the power of the laughter club, and plan to return often whenever I feel I am in need of an energizing workout, as the exercise I got that day was more than I had gotten in months. That whole next week I thought about what I had seen and done that day, and often found myself chuckling for no reason at all thinking of some silly little thing I had remembered. My experience that day had left me wanting more, and I was now reawakened to the everyday silliness of life that exists everywhere if we just take a little time to recognize it. I promised myself I would never again be "too busy" to see it, and penciled in the time slot at the laughter club as a new weekly activity.

Here is a link where you can find a laughter club in your neighborhood, enjoy!!!