Laughter Is the Best Medicine
The sight of older folks impishly parading around a classroom in roils of laughter might make a passerby stop and stare with amused confusion outside room 204 in Van Dusen Hall on a Tuesday afternoon.
The spectacle may even inspire a chuckle or two.
At least that’s what certified laughter leader Kathy Shader hopes to do — inspire laughter.
Shader teaches Laughter in the Sandhills, an eight-week course on the benefits of laughing offered by the Center for Creative Retirement at Sandhills Community College.
The class centers on the principles of good-hearted living, such as kindness, gratitude and self-worth, utilizing laughter as the means towards a happier life.
“Hearing laughter is a good thing,” Shader says. “You can just lose yourself in laughter. Once you get laughing, it’s contagious — the only contagious thing you want to catch. It’s like a natural high.”
No Sense of Humor? No Problem
One might think that a class on laughter would involve all kinds of funny materials to achieve a good guffaw, but a sense of humor is not a prerequisite.
“This is laughter without humor,” Shader says. “We’re actually laughing at nothing.”
Laughter is a universally recognized expression based on social interaction — anyone can laugh, even if the laughter is simulated.
In her class, Shader simulates laughing to generate real laughter using three sounds: “ha ha,” “ho ho” and “he he.”
“They say ‘Fake it ’till you make it,’” she tells her students. “The laughter sounds that you force yourself to make turn into the real laughter, and it works!”
Statistics show that most laughs come from everyday interactions, not jokes.
Shader stresses social interaction during her laughter “workouts,” implementing strong eye contact.
The class uses various exercises to achieve a sidesplitting chuckle — the “alohaha,” the “knee-slap,” the “ice cube down the back,” the “ants in your pants” — Shader’s arsenal is endless.
Her favorite is the double-handshake laugh, in which partners shake both hands, saying “ha, ha, ha, ha, ha” and “ho, ho, ho, ho, ho,” before swinging their arms and laughing, “he, he, he, he, he!”
Because the number of potential exercises is unlimited, Shader encourages students to make up their own as they exercise at home.
Anything goes as long as the laughs come.
Finding Your Inner Child
Despite the fact that laughing is a universal trait as inherent as a fingerprint, many people don’t laugh.
“People really do lose their laugh as they age,” Shader says. “They just start forgetting about the joyful things in their life. They dwell on the bad things, the depressing things, and it just brings you down.”
Margaret Cochran confessed on the first day of class that she didn’t really learn to laugh until she met her husband, Steve, who is also enrolled in the course.
“I grew up in a family that did not have a practice of laughing or being mischievous, like my husband,” she says. “When I learned to laugh with him, it was just such a relief, and when I go back with my family, they don’t find it funny at all. It’s kind of a thing that you’re structured into.”
The return to the lighter, carefree memories of childhood often taps into the uninhibited exuberance that many people tend to bottle up as adults.
During a session, Shader and her students pretend to have a pillow fight, bouncing invisible pillows off each other’s heads as laughter ensues.
“I haven’t had a pillow fight in years!” someone says with a giggle.
Shader admits that her class is unorthodox, but her goal is to show others the finer points of light-hearted silliness.
“You’re always going to get people who can’t think outside the box, or who can’t be silly or a little kooky,” Shader says. “But for the most part, it clicks, and people really enjoy it.”
The old adage says laughter is the best medicine, but how much does daily laughter actually affect one’s well-being?
Laughter relieves stress, contributes to better sleep and, with enough chuckles, even provides a moderate aerobic workout, according to various studies.
Shader tells her students that a minute of hearty laughter equals 10 minutes of exercise on a rowing machine, but no one has to be physically capable of that much rowing to reap the benefits.
“You can be in a wheelchair, or you can be a gymnast,” Shader says. “All walks of life can do it, and it’s just an overall, body and mind, wonderful thing that’s born within us, that you don’t have to buy. You just tap into it.”
Psychologically, laughter yields optimism and makes everyday challenges a little more manageable.
Shader personally reaps the benefits of laughter every day.
“I have a whole totally different attitude,” she says. “I want to live each day to the fullest and focus on the good things in my life, and meet as many wonderful people as I can on this earth. To me, it’s just been a life-changing experience.”
Shirley Nelson is taking the class with her husband, Loyd. Now that they’ve been through a few sessions, they love doing the exercises and showing their friends what they’ve learned.
“It’s just to laugh,” Shirley Nelson says. “Everybody needs a laugh these days. It makes you feel invigorated.”
Loyd Nelson agrees, though he did feel a little self-conscious doing the exercises with the group at first.
“That’s something that disappeared fast, though,” he says.
Laughter is not a new source of healthy living.
Buddhists have practiced simulated laughter in conjunction with yoga and meditation for centuries.
However, the modern laughter movement has progressed thanks to the 1970 publication of “The Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient,” by Norman Cousins, author and former editor of The Saturday Review of Literature.
Cousins used laughter to drastically improve his quality of life while suffering from a life-threatening form of arthritis that doctors predicted would kill him within a year.
By watching taped performances of the Marx Brothers and old episodes of “Candid Camera” as a self-directed form of laughter therapy, Cousins improved his condition and lived another 16 years.
Though there is no proof that laughter alone allowed him to live longer, Cousins firmly believed that maintaining a positive attitude allowed him an exceedingly higher quality of life.
Cousins’ example has been the impetus for other groups to utilize the benefits of laughter.
Shader received her certification through the World Laughter Tour, an international organization promoting the benefits of laughter therapy through groups and classes.
Similar organizations have evolved all over the world, bringing people together just to laugh.
Shader hopes to continue spreading laughter in Moore County by teaching more laughter classes and starting a local laughter group.
She wants to let others know how significant their roles are in the search for personal happiness.
“If you wait for something to happen, you could be waiting for a very long time,” she tells her students. “You need to make it happen. Don’t sit around waiting to find happiness, joy, laughter.”
Shader has no problem looking for the better things in life.
The laughs just keep on coming.
Hannah Sharpe can be reached at (910) 693-2485 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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