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Why We Laugh

Laughter is more complicated -- and bizarre -- than you might think.

Using 'Laugh Therapy' continued...

Some other laugh therapists might dress as clowns or sell CDs of themselves telling jokes to the laughless. Of course, if being hilarious is so easy for anyone with a certificate in laugh therapy, why do professional comics like Dave Chappelle get $50 million contracts?

This hits on one problem with a treatment based on humor -- it doesn't account for taste. Some people like Adam Sandler; others would rather put their heads in a vise than see one of his films. Humor is a very subjective thing.

Wilson gets around the troublesome issue of taste by skipping the jokes.

"I don't use humor," he says. Instead, he just starts encouraging people to laugh. And because laughter is contagious, they do.

When Wilson leads a group, he aims to produce a spontaneous, unforced mirthful laugh, which he believes may have health benefits. "It can be almost trance-like," he says. He fuses his approach with some eastern, yoga-like traditions that he claims are "probably about 5,000 years old." He says that people in his class can laugh for as long as two to three hours.

Laughter for Your Health

However, Provine says he is skeptical about the health benefits of laughter. "I don't mean to sound like a curmudgeon," says Provine, "but the evidence that laughter has health benefits is iffy at best."

He says most studies of laughter have been small and problematically conducted. He also says that the bias of the researchers is too evident; they want to prove that laughter has benefits. After all, we'd all like to believe that good-humored, happy people are rewarded with long lives. Who wants to believe that being a boring, mirthless jerk is the surefire way to live past 100?

Provine also points out that it's difficult to separate the effects of laughter, specifically, from all of the other things that go with it.

"It's part of a larger picture," says Provine. "Laughter is social, so any health benefits might really come from being close with friends and family, and not the laughter itself."

Wilson agrees that there are limits to what we know about the benefits of laughter.

"Laughing more could make you healthier, but we don't know," he says. "I certainly wouldn't want people to start laughing more just to avoid dying -- because sooner or later, they'll be disappointed."

But he and Provine agree that whether laughter actually improves your health or not, it undeniably improves your quality of life.

"Obviously, I'm not antilaughter," says Provine. "I'm just saying that if we enjoy laughing, isn't that reason enough to laugh? Do you really need a prescription?"

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