Do you want to be so happy you’re downright irritating?

2008-08-29 00:00

It’s a cold, wet Wednesday in Cape Town and the patients at St Luke’s Hospice in Kenilworth could be forgiven for wondering what on earth is going on in the hospice hall.

A tall man with a long, grey ponytail has apparently captured all the hospice staff — and has them dancing round the hall laughing.

“Grab a newspaper,” says the man with the ponytail, as the bunch of community nurses, caregivers and admin staff wait with anticipation. “I am going to teach you a new approach to the news.

“So much of our stress is caused by the news,” he continues. “Now, pretend you are opening a newspaper and reading it — and then I want you to start laughing.”

The hospice workers hold open their imaginary newspapers — and begin to chortle.

“That’s right,” yells Mumbai-based laughterologist Bill Gee above the growing cacophony. “Now, I want you to know you can do the same with the television news.”

He goes on to the next exercise as his audience looks on expectantly: “Right, now you’re driving in the car in rush hour traffic. An idiot drives in front of you and cuts you off. What are you going to do?”

As if on cue, the roomful of people start laughing again. A St Luke’s patient with a walking stick, who has followed the noise, walks in and asks, “What is going on here?”.

“We are learning how to laugh,” says one staffer and the old woman settles into a chair and starts laughing with them.

Gee sobers up and speaks to the roomful of people. “I see people getting furious all the time at the challenges life throws up. But, when you get furious, you allow toxins into your body. Do you think anybody cares? The person you get angry with will have the last laugh if you give over to fury. Rather get the first laugh.”

Gee has been in South Africa for a few weeks, running laughter workshops for cancer and HIV/Aids patients, hospice workers and anybody interested in learning about laughter as exercise and as therapy.

Throughout the country, he says, people have grabbed on to his message. “The more people need to laugh, the easier it is to make them laugh. I have never met people who are so easily made to laugh than South Africans,” says Gee.

“South Africa really needs laughter. Stress levels are very high, for obvious reasons: the crime, the fear of violence and the economy. Depression rates in SA are two to four times the international average.”

The benefits of laughter, says Gee, are relatively new to South Africa. “In India, you can go into any city or suburb and you will find hundreds of laughter clubs. People meet at six or seven o’clock in the morning, in public parks, to laugh. Indian laughter clubs are supported by city authorities in recognition of how they improve health and well-being.”

Gee’s laughter as exercise techniques do not rely on jokes, but rather on tapping into natural laughter. He believes adults should take a closer look at the laughter habits of children.

“They have what we call natural laughter. They laugh 300 to 500 times a day. When we become adolescents, our natual laughter is programmed out of us. We can’t laugh in classes or at the table or in church. By the time we are adults, we have stopped laughing. We only laugh 10 to 15 times a day. In South Africa, it is closer to five times a day.”

•For more information on laughter workshops, see www.laughsa.com.

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