The Growing Popularity of Laughter Therapy

The practice of "laughter therapy" is growing in popularity. Devotees say the simple act of laughing helps relieve stress and improves things like blood flow and digestion. It's getting so popular that even the Pentagon is training military families to use it. Luke Burbank talks to some practitioners and the self-proclaimed head of the "laughter movement" to find out what's so funny.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

NPR's Luke Burbank is back with us for his third appearance on the show this week.

Luke, what have you got?

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

Alex, I have been following the growing trend of laugh therapy, which is now getting so popular, even the Pentagon is starting to use it to reach out to military families. But let's get one thing straight right here at the top. Laugh therapy, as demonstrated here by Mary-Francis Booth of Boise, Idaho.

Ms. MARY-FRANCIS BOOTH (Boise, Idaho resident): Ha, ha, hee, hee, hee, ha, ha, hee, hee, hee.

BURBANK: Has nothing to do with jokes, at least jokes that are in any way funny.

Ms. BOOTH: One of the greetings that we do is, aloha, ha, ha. What you would do is you would pretend like you're putting a lei over the person that you're greeting and then go, aloha, ha, ha, ha.

BURBANK: Add to that a hearty helping of floral-print shirts, a few of those wacky jester hats, and a group of people for whom irony is not a top concern, and you've got yourself a laughter club. But before you roll your eyes too hard, realize that Mary-Francis Booth was also once a cynic.

Ms. BOOTH: I thought it was silly and thought, oh, Lord, I wonder if I can get out of this one.

BURBANK: Booth was at a conference for National Guard families whose loved ones were about to be called up to active duty when she and her husband ended up in a laughter workshop led by Colonel James "Scotty" Scott, a high ranking Pentagon official who bills himself as the "Laughing Colonel." Think Patch Adams crossed with General Patent.

Ms. BOOTH: He came in. He was dressed in his green uniform and had a red clown nose on. That was the most fun half an hour or so I guess that we spent the entire time.

BURBANK: Francis is now a laugh leader herself and she's just one of the many military personnel that Colonel Scott has trained to use laughter as a stress reliever. Unfortunately the Colonel wasn't allowed to talk to us on tape for this story. Pentagon officials have not been tickled with the attention he's been getting since last week when U.S.A Today ran a profile of him. But if Colonel Scott is the Luke Skywalker of laughing, Steve Wilson, who trained him, is definitely Yoda.

Mr. STEVE WILSON (President, World Laughter Tour): I have, and I believe all human beings have, an original authentic natural laugh that I now can access any time I want.

BURBANK: Wilson is the founder of the World Laughter Tour based in Columbus, Ohio where Colonel Scott got his training. Wilson is a university educated psychologist and self-taught joyologist.

Mr. WILSON: Muscular tension is released when you laugh. Your digestion is better. It helps heart rate. It helps blood flow.

BURBANK: Wilson and other researchers say laugh therapy works because the brain can't tell if we're laughing for real or faking it. They say just the physical act of laughing does wonders for the body and mind. Through his institute, Wilson has spread his message to thousands of people.

Mr. WILSON: At our conferences in the hallways, I mean, you've got clowns, you've got magicians, you've got human resource directors, you've got this whole range of people.

BURBANK: Do you have any mimes?

Mr. WILSON: Undoubtedly, somewhere in there I'm sure there are mimes.

BURBANK: Wilson says there are two kinds of laughter, dushane(ph), or genuine laughter, and nondushane(ph), or the forced kind. For example:

Mr. WILSON: Sure, nondushane laughter.

(Soundbite of person laughing)

BURBANK: Congratulations. That was one of the scariest things I've ever heard. Now, how about dushane?

(Soundbite of person laughing)

Mr. WILSON: Me thinking of you being scared.

BURBANK: Neither Steve Wilson nor his protégé, Colonel Scott, are proposing people walk around maniacally laughing 24 hours a day. They say sadness, fear, regret are all healthy emotions; emotions we should allow ourselves to experience. It's just that in the meantime, who couldn't use a good aloha, ha, ha?

Luke Burbank, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of person laughing)

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