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Notes from the positive laughter movement
As I made my way from Tampa International to the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa in the winter of 2005, I found myself expecting a certain level of pink hilarity. This was partly because I was in the pinkest of states, Florida, and partly because the preconference mailings and postings of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH) had made ample use of the flamingo motif. I wasn’t surprised to find three-foot-high flamingo balloons hovering overhead in the resort’s lobby, receptionists using flamingo pens and wearing flamingo deely-boppers, and assorted attendees, their faces seemingly fixed in broad smiles (like early victims of the Joker), lounging on sofas in pink boas. When a fellow in a multicolored fool’s cap greeted a pair of conference officials by chanting “Jolly, jolly, ho-ho-ho” without a trace of self-consciousness or irony, there was no mistaking I was on AATH turf.
To acclimate, I took a walk through the conference’s temporary shop, checking out the props and toys for sale. There were smiley-faced products (whoopee cushions, rings, noise makers) and clown noses; Number 2 pencils that looked quite like molded poop; rattlesnake eggs, rubber chickens, and glasses with bushy eyebrows. The book tables, like the talks I would hear over the next two days, represented the major subdivisions of the therapeutic, or positive, humor movement: humor in the workplace, in medicine and therapy, in education, and in everyday life.
The next morning, I joined a sunrise-salute group at seven o’clock on the hotel lawn. Led by Steve Wilson, the husky, bearded cofounder (in 1998) of the World Laughter Tour, or WLT, we shook off our drowsiness and took some deep breaths. A psychologist and self-proclaimed “joyologist,” Wilson says he has trained more than a thousand “certified laughter leaders” who head WLT Laughter Clubs in North America, Venezuela, South Korea, and South Africa.
Forming a circle with some 20 other seekers, I worked my way through a series of exercises. In one set, we repeatedly reached forward to pick an imaginary flower, brought it to our noses in an exaggerated mime-like movement, inhaled as if to smell it while saying “ahhh,” and exhaled saying “haaa.” In another set, we strolled around in inner and outer circles, with big smiles on our faces, making eye contact with and pretending to tickle the people we passed, while chanting “hee, hee, hee, hee, hee.” After each exercise, the group re-formed as one large circle and chanted “ha, ha, ho, ho, ho!”
A fairly disciplined jogger, I was unimpressed with the workout’s cardio effects, but I was glad I took part, because it enabled me to feel the humor-laughter distinction in a way I never quite had before. As Wilson explained at the outset, laughter clubs are not about jokes or humor; they are about laughing as a physical activity. After 10 minutes of these exercises, however, he broke form for just a moment and said something funny about what would happen later in the day to people who held back breath on their exhalations. In the nanosecond it took to get this joke and laugh at it, I was fleetingly but palpably aware of the cognitive and emotional process of humor enjoyment, felt it like a switch being gently shifted in my brain. Experiencing pure laughter for a time had made it possible to experience humor as something new and unexpected.
If providing minor workouts and humor-free laughter were the only goals of the Laughter Club movement, one would be hard-pressed to object to it. But Dr. Madan Kataria of Mumbai, India, who has inspired followers to participate in more than 5,000 Yoga Laughter Clubs in over a dozen countries since 1995, claims more. He maintains that the movement will have a positive impact on human history. Kataria described the mission in an e-mail shortly before World Laughter Day on May 2, 2004: “I would like to remind the whole world that human beings are the only species blessed by the Almighty with the Gift Of LAUGHTER. Laughter is a universal language which has the potential to unite the entire humanity. The way [the] laughter clubs movement is spreading across the world, it leaves me with no doubt that laughter is a common link among all the nations. If we consider the entire world as an extended family and develop the network of Laughter Clubs worldwide, it will build up global consciousness of brotherhood and friendship.” Kataria continued with a proposal to organize laughing peace marches through major cities, in which participants would carry banners saying “World Peace through Laughter”; “Laugh for Life”; “Laughter Has No Language”; “HO, HO, HA, HA, HA”; “Laughter, a Positive Energy”; and “Join Laughter Club—It’s FREE.”
The assumption that organized laughter is likely to subvert warlike acts and thoughts is belied, it seems to me, by the implausibility of this kind of laughter ever becoming universal, and by the laughs inspired by hostile, angry, and hateful jokes about the “enemy” on all sides of conflicts.
Most of the AATH conference’s presenters were professional speakers, and most of their talks were comic routines promoting humor. Corporate entertainer Brad Montgomery set the stage when he said, “Sunrises, flowers, rubber noses, minivans—life is fun. How cool is that?” Montgomery urged the audience to avoid becoming psychic vampires who “suck the life out of others,” and suggested that we should all “dare to be dorks.” By this he meant that we should play practical jokes on total strangers. An example he offered was the time he went with his baby into a post office and pretended she wasn’t his. “Whose kid is this?” he asked loudly. “Who left her? Does anyone know her? Quick, someone, give her a stamp.” After a few minutes of feigned distress, he’d called out, “She’s mine.” Although “no one else laughed,” he said, “I felt great.” A handout Montgomery distributed to accompany his talk included the following ideas for “funny things to do in elevators”:
While the doors are opening, hurriedly whisper, “Hide it . . . quick!” then whistle innocently.
When at least eight people have boarded, moan from the back, “Oh, not now . . . motion sickness!”
Taking a different tack, Tim Gard—introduced as a “nationally recognized humorist and authority on stress reduction through humor who has taught thousands to unlock their comic vision”—began his talk by noting that good and bad things happen to everyone. The trick, he said, is to “turn bummers into woo-hoos.” By way of illustration, he offered the following story: When a college-age waitress serving him seemed bored, he urged her to take pride in her job, telling her that it was important, not a bummer but a potential woo-hoo. “If you can be a good waitress,” he told her, “you can do any job on this planet well.” A few minutes later, he said, he heard her voice coming from the kitchen in an upbeat tone—”I’m a waitress!” And then another voice chimed in, “Well, then, I’m a cook.”
Standing below a projection screen with the words “have fun! have fun!” emblazoned in large letters, Gard urged listeners to “let the stress go,” find their “mental magic,” “learn from their inner child,” and “use humor to refresh and renew.” Then he said something unexpected. He began by asking the audience whether “humor is the best medicine” and, after a general shout of “yes” resounded through the hall, he said, “Well, actually, no it isn’t.” He told about having endured the agony of a ruptured appendix and finding relief in morphine. “Laughter is not the best medicine,” he said. “Maybe the 15th best or the 10th, but not the best.”
Afterward I talked with Deborah Price, a former nurse who volunteers as a clown on both children’s and adults’ wards at the National Institutes of Health hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. She disagreed with Gard’s assessment. “Bringing patients in the ER or ICU gentle humor,” she said, “is as essential as bringing them morphine. I absolutely believe that emotions are contagious, that anger, fear, and tension breed more of the same. Smiles and laughter generate more smiles and laughter, too.”
Price performs at the bedsides of cancer patients enduring the protocols of Phase 2 or 3 treatment studies. After securing permission from staff to visit particular patients, she and her partner (decked out as Hugs and Klutzy, respectively) knock on doors and ask whether the occupants are ready for clown rounds. Sometimes Price enters walking a sponge dog, whom she introduces as Frank, at the end of a stiff leash. “In his last race,” she will say, “he fell behind and I shouted out, ‘Hey, Frank, ketchup!'”
“We joke about the hospital routine, the dinner trays, which leads to talking about fine dining and restaurants and travel. And sometimes our caring clowning is as simple as sitting by the bedside, holding or stroking a patient’s hand and smiling, helping them to relax and sleep or speak,” says Price. Clowning does not always change the mood of a depressed patient, but it can be a distraction. “Most nights,” she says, “are terrific. We leave jazzed.”
The workplace was a frequent focus of talks and breakout sessions at the conference. Leslie Ann Yerkes, a corporate consultant and author of Fun Works: Creating Places Where People Love to Work, asked us to think of her as a “Sergeant Mary Poppins” determined to “transform workplaces into temples where the whole selves of workers can show up.” Citing old saws like “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” and “Time flies when you’re having fun,” Yerkes speculated about when in human history we lost sight of these truths and created the stressed-out, humorless workplace. Up through the Renaissance, she opined, workers were probably more playful, so it was the Industrial Revolution, with its hierarchal business structures, that may have occasioned the loss of fun.
This, I fear, is a level of historical analysis more palatable coming from the comedian Mel Brooks’s 2000 Year Old Man. If only Marx, Engels, and Joe Hill had known about the restorative power of humor, the Western world could have skipped its pointless flirtation with trade unionism and radical economic reform and gone straight to clowning around the water cooler. Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your frowns.
Eschewing historical analysis, Ann Fry, an Austin-based consultant who describes herself as “the CEO and Dean of Humor University,” insisted, “There’s no evidence that life is serious,” and guided her audience through a list of ways in which adding fun to the office promotes positive outcomes, including the reduction of absenteeism and stress, and boosts to retention, team building, problem solving, and creativity. Like other business-oriented presenters who preceded or followed her, Fry seemed to posit an office setting in which each individual is expected to contribute innovative strategies and ideas, on the model of a software startup where people wear comfortable clothes, suck lollipops, and think outside the box—or daydream—their way toward seven-figure salaries and valuable stock options.
How applicable these up-with-fun approaches are to more common workplaces is an intriguing question. No doubt telling jokes over a meat-processing plant’s conveyor belt would help the hours pass, but do workers have time for mirth as animal parts zip by and blades flash around their hands, and does their corporate employer care about their creativity or loyalty when potential new workers are on their way from Central America? While there is little reason to question the importance of humor for work-related stress reduction, wouldn’t it be better to tackle the causes of stress? In many workplaces, all work and no play leaves Jack and Jill, too, with massive credit card debt, chronic lower back pain, an inability to put the kids through college, and the prospect of having to work at a Wal-Mart after age 70. HA-HA-HO-HO-HO!
Like other presenters, Fry lingered over the telling of her own life story. Horribly stressed by a joyless administrative job, she had found herself crying at night after work, sometimes as soon as she reached the company parking lot. One evening, after her son asked her whether she would always cry at night, she decided to quit her job and devote herself to promoting serious fun in the workplace, functioning as a “productivity therapist” who teaches “resiliency and surrender, the ability to bounce back by trusting that things will get better.” “Pain,” Fry concedes, “is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
Saranne Rothberg, founder of the ComedyCures Foundation, built her AATH address around her cancer diagnosis. On the very night of the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, Rothberg began laughing and hasn’t stopped since, through multiple operations and an advancing illness. Drawing inspiration from the writer and editor Norman Cousins—who claimed to have cured himself of degenerative collagen disease by moving out of the hospital, watching comic films, laughing heartily, and taking large doses of vitamin C—Rothberg began by renting stand-up comedy videos and deciding to laugh at least a hundred times every day. A single mother, she shared the work of fulfilling this pledge with her daughter, making dates to tell each other jokes, wear funny costumes, and play. As her story has spread through local and national TV and print media, Rothberg, an engaging speaker who can draw laughter and tears from an audience, has raised funds to bring laughter programs to public schools and hospitals.
A list she distributed of 10 ways to “Get the Recommended 100 Laughs a Day” included:
1. Make an appointment to laugh each day with a friend or family member. . . .
3. Keep a joke book (or funny pages) by your bed. . . .
8. Smile at yourself 2X per day in a mirror.
Though these suggestions may seem manageable, Rothberg, like virtually all of the speakers at the AATH meeting, went too far. Would you really want to live with or work next to someone who follows suggestions Number 9 (“laugh from the tips of your toes”) and Number 10 (“look for humor in every situation”)?
Feeling every bit the cynic in Ambrose Bierce’s sense of “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be,” I boarded a plane back to snowy Boston and left behind me the merriment of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor—its joke-telling sessions and laughter circles, limbo contests and conga lines, pole dancers and geriatric clowns.
The positive humor movement can be summed up in a familiar joke script: The good and bad news about its practitioners is that they are never just kidding; the worse news is that some of them get as close as humanly possible to always kidding. Life raining on your parade? Take out your comic umbrella. Feeling gloomy? Look at one of the cartoons you’ve been collecting and enjoy a chuckle break. Having a bad day at work? Find a humor buddy and tell her the worst joke you can remember. Mysteriously ubiquitous, supernaturally malevolent, improbably large white whale bite your leg off? Hey, Captain Ahab, lighten up, whistle a happy tune. No need to get angry. What’s that you say? Your stump grinds, your groin aches, you’ve dropped your last cindered apple to the ground? Hey, hey now, take a tip from musical theater: “Take off the gloomy mask of tragedy, / It’s not your style; / You’ll look so good that you’ll be glad / Ya’ [badum-CHING] decided to smile.”
The irony is that Herman Melville’s Ahab might well have lived longer if he could have seen the folly of his quest and the comic absurdity of declaring war on the universe, of stabbing at it with unceasingly enraged determination and screaming: “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” This, of course, is Ahab’s style. But if only Norman Cousins or the pediatrician clown Patch Adams had shipped aboard the Pequod, an upbeat Moby-Dick with a heartwarming ending would have sold more copies in the 1850s, and the culture might have been treated to a sequel in which Ahab, a wealthy, retired sea captain, bounces his son on his knee back in Nantucket and regales visitors with his tropical adventures. “There was this one time,” he might say, “when a ferocious spermaceti chewed me leg off, boys, and it hurt for awhile. But then a tune popped into me head and I just sang it over and over: ‘Big Fat Moby, Banana, Fanna, Moby. Fee Fie Mo Moby—DICK!’ Then I just laughed myself silly and well.”
Okay, that’s out of my system. I brought Melville’s Ahab into this conclusion because he stands in the middle of the most profound 19th-century American treatment of the role of humor in a universe that can seem to be pointless at best and pointlessly cruel at worst. Though neither Cousins nor Patch Adams ever walked the decks of the Pequod, Melville situates Ahab within a spectrum of characters defined in part by what they think is funny. Unlike the grim, isolated Ahab, Captain Boomer of the Samuel Enderby, an English whaler and another of the white whale’s victims, recovers from having his arm chewed off by drinking and laughing with his friend, Dr. Bunger. Beginning with a comment by the doctor, the exchange below captures the spirit of the treatment:
“I did all I could; sat up with him nights; was very severe with him in the matter of diet-“
“Oh, very severe!” chimed in the patient [Captain Boomer]; then suddenly altering his voice, “Drinking hot rum toddies with me every night, till he couldn’t see to put on the bandages; and sending me to bed, half seas over, about three o’clock in the morning. Oh, ye stars! he sat up with me indeed, and was very severe in my diet. Oh! a great watcher, and very dietetically severe, is Dr. Bunger. (Bunger, you dog, laugh out! why don’t ye? You know you’re a precious jolly rascal.) But, heave ahead, boy, I’d rather be killed by you than kept alive by any other man.”
For the lower officers aboard the Pequod, Stubb in particular, everything is a joke, even the sea monsters they hunt down and kill at great peril to themselves. As Stubb sings:
Oh! jolly is the gale,
And a joker is the whale,
A’ flourishin’ his tail,-
Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh!
The scud all a flyin’,
That’s his flip only foamin’;
When he stirs in the spicin’,—
Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh!
For the practical, middle-class, pious Starbuck, humor has its place and time. For the novel’s most deeply comic spirit, the narrator Ishmael, learning to laugh even at death makes it possible to acknowledge the injustice and absurdity of the human predicament but still to see humor in a God who frequently seems cruel:
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own…. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.
Even those of us who are skeptical about the positive humor movement, who find its prescriptions corny and its willful laughter unappealing, can see in Ishmael’s desperado philosophy a middle ground. Though Ishmael’s suspicions that demonic forces govern the world and that all grand questions turn out to be unanswerable are incompatible with New Age affirmation, they provide a surprisingly apt context for positive humor. Perceiving the darkness and meaninglessness of existence—Ishmael’s sense that “though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright”—leaves us with two options. Like Ahab, we can eschew all pleasure and softening amusement, the better to hurl ourselves body and spirit against the enemy. Or, like Ishmael, we can settle for “attainable felicity” and take comfort in a life of simple pleasures that will, delightfully enough, include “the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fireside,” and, of course, laughter.
Paul Lewis is a professor of English at Boston College. His essay is drawn from Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict, published in the United States by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 2006 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.