Is laughter the best medicine?

16 March 2012

Written by: Madeline McCarty

When I came across the Laughter Group on the Jika Jika website my interest was piqued. What was a laughter group? I had images of people sitting around laughing at each other for no reason. I didn’t know what to expect if I attended, so I rang up Gillianna del Alectos, the group leader, who told me that they didn’t tell jokes there; instead they did other things to make each other laugh. She told me that it was usually very confronting for people the first time and to leave my inhibitions at home. What was I in for?

Laughter groups are not a new phenomenon. Created in India back in 1995 they have spread to many other countries since.  In the instance of this particular group, Gillianna originally read about laughter groups in The Age and decided to get one going in Alphington. It was after she had been running this group for some time that she was asked to get one going in Northcote – that was about six or seven years ago.

So, I decided to go to a typical Wednesday class. It started at 6pm in the quaint little community centre which doubled as an early learning centre. I personally felt that this further helped with getting me in the silly, childish mood that the class required.

When I arrived I was introduced to the tight-knit fabulous five with which I spent the next 40 or so minutes larking about with. I met Gillianna first (an upbeat, lively woman – just don’t call her jolly), then the rest of the group, namely: Steve, Jim, Maria and Anne.

First we had warm up exercises to loosen the body and work the diaphram muscles. The warm up consisted of yoga-type moves such as the ‘surfer’s pose’. We then moved onto the main part of the class which consisted of different ‘laughs’; different characteristics which are defined by their suited actions and laughs. These different ‘laughs’ were interspersed with rhythmic clapping whilst repeating the chant, ‘ho ho ha ha ha’.

The first laugh of the night was the ‘Kookaburra Laugh’, in which the group would stand in a circle, bend down and then come up laughing like a kookaburra triggering the next person in the circle to do so. Another laugh was the ‘Mad Scientist Laugh’. In which… well, I’m sure you get the picture.

This continued with different ‘laughs’ throughout the session and then ended with a cool down similar to the exercises at the beginning.

One of my main questions directed at Gillianna and the group, was whether she had thought about the therapeutic benefits of the class, to which she replied, that she had researched it and usually gave updates to the rest of the class.

The most important fact that Gillianna noted in this vein was that, ‘Laughter helps your oxytocin levels to be increased. Laughter with eye contact does this even more so’.

She explained that this was her reasoning for joining the group as she wasn’t sourcing a lot of natural oxytocin. ‘There are other sources but we don’t talk about those very often’, she added while laughing.

‘We used to do the pouring of the drinks, a ‘Cocktail Laugh’, she joked. ‘That was really pathetic’.

‘I just do it at home now’, Jim, one of the original group members, responded.

‘For me, it’s a weekly dose of absurdity’, he continued, ‘in a world that requires order and system and seriousness. It’s a bit of almost childish fun and absurdity and nonsensicalness. It’s a system release’.

A lot of the group members have stated that it is a release from the doldrums of daily life. However, not only is it an escape but it also improves different muscle groups. Jim suggested that coming to the group is similar to pilates, as it works the core muscles. He also stated that it is very helpful in projecting one’s voice.

‘It’s not too structured, it’s not like we’re in training’, Gillianna stated after the session. Her final comment of note was that, ‘It actually doesn’t matter at all how you do anything. There’s only one rule and it’s that you don’t laugh at anyone in a judgemental way’.

Afterwards, I felt lively and as if I had really connected with some new people, as there were no inhibition-causing barriers getting in my way. Everyone was just there to have a laugh.

You can find out more about Laughter Clubs in Victoria at http://www.laughterclubsvic.org/ or the Jika Jika Community Centre Laughter Group at http://www.jikajika.org.au/2008/.

Madeleine McCarty is in her final year of a Bachelor of Arts with a Major in Media Studies at La Trobe University. She is 1/10th of the upstart editorial team for 2012. This is her third piece for upstart. You can follow her on Twitter @MadeleineKMcC.