Friday, April 10, 2009

How Do You Spell Relief? Ha Ha Ha Ha!

How do they spell relief? H-a-h-a-h-a
Group guffawing is creating stress-free zones across AmericaBy Kayce T. AtaiyeroTribune staff reporterPublished April 22, 2007
Like many people with busy lives, Alon Attal felt his spirit was suffocated by the weight of the world. He internalized everything. He took himself, and life, way too seriously.Then he started attending the Chicago Live Life Laughing Club in Palatine to fight back, with laughter.
Traffic jams? Violence and death on the news? Three-dollar-a-gallon gas? Attack it with a laugh, even if you have to force one out to start.On a recent night, Attal kicked off his shoes and stood among a circle of about a dozen strangers. The group began to chant -- ho, ho, ha-ha-ha -- as they jogged and clapped. Then came the role-playing, where they acted out a variety of scenarios, faking over-the top, cartoonish laughs designed to prompt a real one.After a few minutes of hopping around and mimicking the embarrassed giggle of someone who had just stepped in dog doo, Attal caught the bug. His fake laugh became the real thing. A weight was lifted.In meeting halls, recreation centers and church basements all over the country, people are getting together to laugh for no reason. And not just modest chuckles -- we're talking gut-busting, face-contorting, cheek-reddening belly laughs.These laughter clubs are sanctuaries of silliness where the burdened go to forget what brought them there in the first place."I have, like, no stress in my life anymore," said Attal, a 29-year-old physicist from Naperville who has been going to the club for three months. "I started being able to laugh at myself and that changed everything."Laughter clubs, believed to have begun in India, made their way to the United States in 1999. Since then, hundreds of clubs have formed nationwide, according to The World Laughter Tour, an Ohio-based group that trains "laughter leaders" for several hundred dollars apiece.Those laughter leaders then form clubs or offer seminars, usually free to those in need of a chuckle.

Dozen in ChicagoFirm numbers on laughter clubs are tough to come by because many are informal. But the tour's founder says that in the last five years, the number of laugh leaders they've trained has grown tenfold to nearly 700 a year. In the last year alone, at least a dozen laughter clubs have formed around Chicago.There are no jokes or wacky props to illicit laughter. Just a lot of forced laughter at scenarios such as eating soup that is too spicy. But in the chaos of faux cackling, a real laugh invariably emerges. Soon it spreads.In short, you fake it until you make it, said Doug Dvorak, who founded the Palatine club last year."It requires no sense of humor," Dvorak said. "Come with an open mind and the laughter will follow."But for many, mustering a laugh is a lot harder than it might sound, said Edward Charlesworth, a Houston-based clinical psychologist who specializes in stress management.High rates of divorce, personal debt and job dissatisfaction all cause people to lose touch with how to have fun, he said. When catastrophe strikes, such as the Virginia Tech shootings, it compounds the problem."In many ways, the whole media has brought to the forefront the sources of stress and made us acutely aware of tragedy," Charlesworth said. "We don't have the distance from [outside] stress like we used to. If you think of the poker face, a lot of people are holding their emotions close to the vest." Laughter clubs provide a safe forum to let it all out, said Steve Wilson, an Ohio psychologist who founded The World Laughter Tour. Wilson said the mission of laughter clubs is to remove the hurdles as well as the stigma of laughing."There are the humor-impaired, those who are so damaged by life that they are laugh-challenged. They have been shushed because they snort or cackle, or because they've been told it was immature," Wilson said. "We release the inner laughter."While the methods used to prompt laughter vary from club to club, they all have one basic requirement: That you leave your inhibitions at the door. The technique only works if you give in to the craziness of it all. "Move it around, get wacky," Dvorak said, as he wiggled at the waist, looking as if one of his hip bones had suddenly come loose. "There's no judging. This is a penalty free-zone. You are free to be silly."Relieving the stressThe club is in almost constant motion for the whole hour. The participants included a curious 24-year-old bartender and a group of 30ish moms who heard about the club on "Oprah."They pretended to get a funny call from a friend, or that they were evildoers on the verge of world domination, and tailored a laugh to suit the scene. Shelley Ost, a 32-year-old stay-at-home mom from Palatine, pretended she was driving on the Dan Ryan Expressway. She laughed and honked as she drove in circles, stuck in traffic. Out of breath, she later said she didn't realize that laughing would be so hard. But it was worth it."I have a 3-year-old daughter and two stepkids who are teenagers and they all live with me," Ost said. "I need lots of ways to relieve stress."kataiyero@tribune.com Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

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