Health & Fitness

Kansans' research shows a good laugh each day can boost on-the-job morale

She doesn't do stand-up, but Judy Young can make a room full of people laugh even when they don't feel like it.

Without telling a joke or taking a pie in the face, she draws belly laughs from people in the workplace, where yuks can be hard to come by.

How? By telling them to laugh.

Young, of Wichita, gets people to pretend to laugh until they start laughing for real.

She doesn't use humor. Humor is no good. Humor is subjective. What's funny to one person isn't funny to another. Humor is cognitive, laughter is physical.

So she guides people at her seminars through a series of stretching and breathing exercises, tells them to fake some "ho-hos," "ha-has" and "hee-hees," gets them walking in circles, makes them do more "ho-hos," "ha-has" and "hee-hees," makes them walk faster, laugh louder, even bend over and slap their knees.

Pretty soon, people who may have started the session preoccupied with job stresses and self-conscious about acting silly are laughing out loud on their own.

The results are nothing to laugh at. A study she did with Newton psychologist Nate Regier and Wisconsin psychologist Heidi Beckman — the first study to look at self-induced laughter in the workplace — showed improvements in workers' self-regulation on the job and increases in optimism, positive emotions and social identification.

The study, done in 2005, used 33 volunteers from the staff of Prairie View who laughed 15 minutes a day for 15 consecutive workdays.

Two volunteers reported their migraine headaches disappeared, Young said. Four lost weight. One saw a skin condition clear up. One no longer needed blood pressure medication he'd been taking for years.

Physical effects weren't the point of the study, which focused on performance in the workplace.

One of the volunteers, David Gear, who decreased his daily coffee intake due to the release of endorphins caused by his laughter, said the entire group of staff volunteers noticed improvement in their relationships with each other.

"To be asked to push yourself outside your own comfort zone was amazing to do in front of other people," he said.

Gear, director of education at Promise Regional Medical Center in Hutchinson, said he continues to induce laughter during drives to and from work as he carpools with others who were part of the study.

The peer-reviewed study was published in the Journal of Primary Prevention in 2007, and has had lasting impact.

It was cited in Parade Magazine in April, and just this week, Young received a letter from the president the American Heart Association praising her efforts to help prevent heart disease.

Annette Graham, director for Sedgwick County Department on Aging, said Young made a presentation last year to 70 seniors and providers.

"People loved it. People really responded well to it," she said.

It alerted them to the critical role laughing plays in life.

"We take it as just something fun to do, a luxury. We don't see the importance of laughing," Graham said

Young, who calls herself a "laughter coach/educator," makes hourlong presentations on laughter at businesses and organizations. They include a talk by her about laughter, and several laugh sessions to get her audience worked up to a laugh riot.

Laughing is an aerobic exercise, she said, and "you don't ask people to put on sneakers and run 10 miles."

Young has a Web site, laughterlinks.com, but relies on word-of-mouth to line up her presentations.

"It is difficult for most CEOs to wrap their brain around having everybody show up for work, walk in to a large room and have everybody laugh for no reason for 15 minutes," she said.

But the study showed what a good 15-minute belly laugh for their employees can do for those CEOs. It showed a significant improvement in their workers' role competency — how they feel about their jobs.

It also showed significant increase in the workers' sense of self-regulation — the way they minded the rules of the job, of life, of the universe.

"When you feel better, you do better," Young said.

They may troop morosely into one of Young's presentations with laughter the last thing on their minds. So she first gets them standing and breathing deeply to relax them, then gets them stretching to open up lungs and rib cages.

Then she has them do a series of sounds that emulate laughter. She invokes Santa Claus for the "Ho-hos," asking them to imagine their bellies wiggling like a bowl full of jelly.

She adds Mrs. Claus for the "ha-has" and the elves for the "hee-hees."

As the workers engage in this false mirth, she asks them to bend over and slap their knees.

"That psychologically gives them permission to do it," she said. "Soon everybody's having a good time."

She forms them into circles, like kindergartners, and has them walk around and around, looking each other in the eye and slapping high-fives as they laugh.

Soon they are laughing on their own.

"It increases oxygen levels, which increases awareness which reduces mistakes," Young said.

Hooking adults up with their own natural laughter is like reconnecting them to their childhood. Children laugh naturally and easily, Young said.

"But we teach it out of them by telling them to be quiet, stop laughing. So as adults we have give ourselves permission to have a rip- roaring good time," she said.

Young gets caught up in all the laughter herself.

"You can't stand by and watch a bunch of people laugh and not laugh yourself," she said. "I feel truly, truly blessed every time I talk to people about laughter."

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