- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

They might be considered an odd bunch, these 16 club members bundled in coats, standing in the center of Duluth’s town square, some laughing so hard that tears are streaming down their cheeks, which can be dangerous in winter in Minnesota.

Here’s Warren Howe, a retired community college professor, still carrying a backpack over his pea-green coat, with a simple laugh that complements a broad smile: a steady ha-ha-ha, with a bit of shoulder movement. Then there’s Ron Miller, a former truck stop attendant who has a more drawn out guffaw. He throws his head back, lets out a howl, and then leans forward with a series of short, staccato chuckles. His eyes water.

But of the 16 laughing in a circle, Wendy Ruhnke, a social activist at the local YWCA, erupts in the wildest cachinnation. She just rasps and giggles at first, squinting her eyes and shaking, when suddenly she lets loose with a high-pitched cackling scream, followed by a doubling over, a moment of breathless silence, mouth agape, and then a series of side-clutching bursts. Her laugh is legendary, and irresistibly contagious, though sometimes you’re not sure if she’s laughing or has been kicked in the stomach.

What’s so funny? Nothing, really. This is simply laughter for the sake of laughter. Members meet every Monday near noon, gather in a circle, take in a few deep breaths and then just laugh. No joke.

The group has laughed for about four minutes, before dying down. As they recover, taking deep breaths and wiping their eyes, they begin to chat.

This isn’t group therapy at a sunny Los Angeles mountain retreat or a posh Manhattan yoga studio. The punishing climate — the average annual snowfall would bury an NBA player and winter temperatures frequently dip below zero — doesn’t make for lightheartedness, either.

This gives the laughter here a defiant edge, and the members of this small, laughing counterculture have the requisite Elysian motives, too.

“It feels sooooo good,” Ms. Ruhnke says. “And you feel better, like, for days afterwards. If something funny happens, I would just start laughing uncontrollably again.”

Carmen Yurick agrees. “I do it because it makes me feel good, it gives me energy, and it lasts for about two days. And then I have to go home and laugh by myself. I look in the mirror every morning, and I say, ‘Ah, I’m alive.’”

Wendy Grethen, a trained biologist, founded the group last August almost on a whim. She’s a chronic hobbyist — playing the dulcimer is her life’s passion — and this summer, when she bought a video camera and took up filmmaking, she went to the library and took out as many film shorts as she could.

When she watched a 35-minute documentary titled “The Laughing Club of India,” about a physician in Bombay who treated patients by encouraging them to laugh together, she thought that would be an interesting group to start in Duluth, though not necessarily for therapeutic purposes.

“It was just sort of an experiment, to see if people would come,” Ms. Grethen says. “And I like doing activities where everyone participates, and this was relatively simple.”

But Ms. Grethen, too, reacted physically to the first meeting of the laughing club. The next day at work, she says, she started crying, and couldn’t stop for almost an hour. “It was kind of a weird response — I mean, I don’t cry in public, and I’m a reserved person, but it was just a let-go.”

Along with many others in the group, Jan Karon, an original club member, recalls the laughing therapies of Norman Cousins, the well-known left-wing activist who, after becoming ill, began funding research into holistic healing techniques in the 1960s. He rejected pain medications and used group laughter to treat his ailments.

“It’s totally changing your body chemistry,” Ms. Karon says, citing Mr. Cousin’s ideas. “It’s a very healthy thing to do. It is said that 15 minutes of laughter is worth six hours of meditation.”

Dr. Michael Miller, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center and associate professor of medicine at the university’s School of Medicine, has taken the research further by showing in controlled experiments just how emotional laughter of the kind that connects brain and heart contributes to cardiovascular health. And the earlier in life a person learns this, the better, he advises, because physical changes leading to hardening of the arteries can begin in the teen years, he says.

What sparked his interest in the field, he says, was finding a positive approach to the problem. “We spend so much time laboring over the negative aspects that promote heart disease.”

Laughter clubs he calls “an interesting concept” but he considers “forceful laughter” different — and possibly different in effect from laughing as a genuine emotional expression. It’s well known that the latter releases the chemicals called endorphins that lessen sensations of pain.

Dr. Miller’s studies over the past five years have concentrated on laughter’s effects on the endothelium, the thin layer of protective cells lining the blood vessels, which he describes as “very important chemical mediators of what occurs in the heart muscle.” Any impairment on the working of the endothelium, such as the lessening of blood flow caused by mental stress, can lead to a buildup of fat and cholesterol, contributory factors to heart attacks.

Many members [in the Duluth club] say the feeling generated by the laughing sessions can be fleeting. After a few days of a physical euphoria, the chuckles dissipate. Ms. Grethen is in the process of making a CD of their Monday sessions — call it a therapeutic laugh track for life — so members can laugh along with the group while alone or at home.

Surprisingly, the group does not need much to get the laughter going. As they gather in a circle for a second round, they take their deep breaths, and on the second exhale they each begin to chuckle. In a matter of seconds, they are laughing — Ms. Ruhnke is in stitches.

A few people from the courthouse walk by, startled. They glance over, but then quickly look away. Geri Valentine notices, and after the laughter dies down, says to the group: “It’s embarrassing to see a group of people standing in a circle and laughing, and I thought, maybe we should turn around and face them, or put up a sign saying, ‘Everyone Welcome, All Welcome.’ Wouldn’t it be nice if they could come join us on the spur of the moment, get called in by the laughter?”

Staff writer Ann Geracimos contributed to this story.

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