Recently, after a dear friend died from brain cancer, I wrote a lengthy article about end-of-life planning and hospice care. When I finished, I told my husband, “I think I’m done writing about the emotional stress of caregiving. I just want to be funny for a while. I want to make people laugh.”
My husband is a smart man. He knew I was serious about being funny, so he didn’t laugh at my idea.
Learning From Laughter
I believe finding humor in difficult circumstances is probably in my DNA. My mother wrote letters to me during the six-and-a-half years she cared for my dad following his debilitating stroke. All of her letters were unflinchingly honest, and most of them contained a few sentences that were laugh-out-loud funny.
About a year after Dad died, Mom and I were talking on the phone and she said, “If I could only use one word to describe my 56 years of marriage, that word would be ‘laughter.’”
I couldn’t believe it! I would have expected love, commitment, dedication, even perseverance, but I would have never guessed her one word would be laughter.
I said, “Mom! Are you kidding me? Your life was hard. Don’t you remember? You had four kids in five years. The demands of being a farm wife were unending. There was never enough money. The cow lot was less than fifty yards from the kitchen door. Tell me if I missed something, but I never thought there was anything funny about the unrelenting smell of manure. Or the flies. Good Lord, did you forget the flies?”
She acknowledged that her life had not been easy, but she’d decided early on that if she looked for it, she could find humor in almost any situation. She said if she had a choice between laughing or crying, she’d always choose laughter, because laughing helped defuse most tense situations, and it reduced her stress.
She was right. In a recent article in the Huffington Post, “Hospital’s ‘Laugh Cafe’ For Seniors Proves that Laughter Is The Best Medicine,” healthy living writer Leigh Weingus, points out that various studies have shown that laughter does help relieve stress, lower blood pressure, reduce pain and boost the immune system.
That may be why the Laugh Cafe at Sibley Memorial Hospital, in Northwest Washington, D.C., is so popular with seniors who meet once a month to tell jokes and laugh.
After reading that article, I discovered the 10th Annual All American Laughter Conference was going to be held that weekend in Portland, Oregon, just an hour’s drive from my home. I immediately went online to register.
After two failed attempts at completing the registration from, I grumbled to myself, “I should be able to turn filling out online forms into a great comedy routine!”
When I finally got to the bottom of the form on my third try, I was feeling a bit frustrated. So when I had to complete the following sentence: “This will be the greatest conference ever if . . .”
I wrote, “I lose ten pounds laughing my ass off!!!”
I entered my credit card number and hit “confirm.”
Exploring Laughter Yoga
When I arrived at the conference, I assumed from the name, “Laughter Yoga” that there would be some physical exercise involved. At the first break, I gave myself away as a rookie when I went up to the organizer and asked, “When do we start the exercise portion of the program?”
He kindly explained that we would not be doing any Yoga poses or chanting. He said, “Laughter and Yoga are all about breathing.” He went on to explain that the practice of incorporating laughter into wellness programs began in India in the early 1990’s, when Dr. Madan Kataria, a registrar at a hospital in Mumbai, became interested in the health benefits of laughter while writing an article for a health journal.
In his research, Dr. Kataria came across the book, Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins, and he decided to conduct his own clinical trial. Early one morning, he gathered five people in a public park in Mumbai. One person stood in the middle and told a joke, and the others laughed. Onlookers were intrigued, and within a few weeks the group grew from five people to fifty. Things were rollicking along until they ran out of good jokes, and people started becoming offended by vulgar jokes and mean-spirited stories.
On the brink of disbanding, Dr. Kataria asked for the group to give him one day to develop a different strategy. Going back to the research, he discovered that our bodies cannot differentiate between pretend laughter and genuine laughter.
The next morning, he asked the group members to pretend to laugh for one minute. Although they were reluctant, they agreed to try. When a few of the participants’ fake laughter turned into genuine guffaws, others got tickled, and soon everyone was howling with laughter that lasted for nearly ten minutes. That was the birth of Laughter Yoga.
Once I learned this, I settled in and observed how each presenter had a unique approach and used different tools and exercises to get people laughing. One woman who worked primarily with people in assisted living and memory care facilities, dressed like a clown and used a lot of props like funny hats and soft, washable toys. She said people with dementia wouldn’t always laugh on their own, but if she gave them a puppet, they would lose their inhibitions when she asked them to make their puppet laugh.
Another laughter leader told us to put our fingers on our cheeks and repeat, “He, he, he,” until she instructed us to move our fingers to our chest and start saying, “Ha, ha, ha.” She said we shouldn’t stay there too long, or we’d wear out our ha-ha’s, and nobody wants to do that. The last step was putting our fingers on our abdomen and repeating, “Ho, ho, ho”. Then we were to follow her lead. When she put her fingers on her cheek, we said “He, he, he.” When she moved them to her abdomen, we all said, “Ho, ho, ho,” and when she touched her chest, we said, “Ha, ha, ha.” I was surprised at how quickly and easily the exercise turned into genuine laughter.
The woman who impressed me the most was a self-proclaimed introvert who was trained as an RN. After enduring a miserable 30-year marriage, she went through a horrendous divorce. She sank into a deep depression and attempted suicide twice. She started teaching Laughter Yoga, and she said she dreaded every class. She felt uncomfortable every time she got in front of the group, but once everyone started laughing, she felt better.
A few years later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She suffered through multiple rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. At the end of her treatment, she was once again in deep depression. She bought a life insurance policy with a two-year suicide clause. She marked the date on her calendar that she could kill herself and her children could still get an inheritance.
She resumed teaching her laughter classes, and one morning, a few weeks before the date she intended to commit suicide, she woke up and thought, “Something’s wrong. I don’t feel right.” At that moment, she realized she was no longer depressed, and she didn’t want to die.
When I asked her if she thought laughter really was the best medicine, she said, “I would never tell anyone to stop taking their blood pressure pills, or insulin or chemo treatments. But I would tell them that laughter can help heal a lot of physical and emotional issues that medication cannot fix.”
What I Learned from Attending the All American Laughter Conference
The conference was not what I had expected. There was a lot of raucous laughter, but it didn’t come as a result of jokes or funny stories. It was a group of people who willingly engaged in activities that might make them look silly in order to help themselves and others cope with the stress of living in an imperfect world.
I left the conference feeling both exhausted and exhilarated. I did not lose ten pounds by laughing my ass off, but I did come away with a renewed awareness that we each have a choice about how we want to react to the stressful situations in our lives. I will strive to follow my mother’s example and look for the humor in challenging circumstances. If I can’t get there on my own, I guarantee I’ll be signing up to participate in the nearest Laugh Cafe or Laughter Yoga class.
Laughter may not be the BEST medicine, but a good belly laugh can be extremely therapeutic.
For more information of the health benefits of laughter, check out this article from the Mayo Clinic: “Healthy Lifestyle – Stress Management.”
Elaine K Sanchez is the author of the book, “Letters from Madelyn, Chronicles of a Caregiver”, and co-founder of CaregiverHelp.com, a caregiver support program. She is a caregiver speaker and aging humorist. When she speaks to family and professional caregivers at elder care conferences across the country, she never fails to bring audience members to tears through laughter.