For Dave Russell, laughter is no laughing matter. The private-practice counselor from Swissvale says it can actually serve a therapeutic purpose, by helping to relieve stress. Russell is one of the few "certified laughter leaders" in the region, and in February started the Three Rivers Laughter Club. The club meets every other Thursday at the First Unitarian Church, in Shadyside. Call 412-271-7660 to confirm meeting dates.
How does one become a certified laughter leader?
The training is done by Steve Wilson, a psychologist out in Columbus, Ohio. Steve developed the World Laughter Tour after he met in India a Dr. Madan Kataria when he was on a lecture tour in the mid-'90s. And Dr. Kataria started in the early '90s the Laughter Club International. Steve was [so] impressed with Dr. Kataria and his work that he brought him back. They went on a lecture tour talking about laughter and humor and healing.
Since 1998, Steve Wilson has trained over 2,100 Certified Laughter Leaders in a program where we learn, first and foremost, a respect for accuracy in research about laughter. There is a lot of misinformation out there: People make all kinds of claims that laughter can cure this and laughter can cure that. The second thing we learn is how to set up a laughter club, how to publicize it, how to get people interested in it. The third thing we learn is a set of exercises that are simply everyday activities that we can simulate laughter with in order to stimulate genuine hearty laughter that we believe, [if] done in a supporting, accepting environment, is helpful in stress management.
Since you became a laughter leader, have you found yourself laughing differently?
One [difference] is I laugh more. I spend as a discipline a couple minutes a day [laughing], especially in my car when nobody else is around and all the windows are up. Part of the time I'll be laughing artificially; part of the time it'll be genuine. I'm just laughing at myself laughing. That is my daily exercise. It's internal jogging, if you will. By laughing more, I cry more readily. All of my emotions are more readily available. And I whistle more. Laughter, I believe, can help loosen up all of our feelings ... if one wants to do that. If your goal is to get more in touch with your feelings, laughter can help do that.
What keeps people from laughing?
Being told that they were loud, or their laugh was too raucous.
What do you do at the laughter club?
We're not laughing at each other. We are not here to tell jokes ... because a lot of people say to me, "You're a comic, you tell jokes." And one of the things we do is to make sure people understand that if there is laughter stimulated, it is at no one's expense. We don't use jokes or clowning around in a laughter club, because we don't want anyone to be the butt of the joke. We don't want any group to be offended by the joke. And another reason we don't use jokes is that we run out of jokes very quickly.
How have you parlayed your newly certified skills on your job?
Any humor in counseling I think needs to be used very judiciously and very carefully. Because in some cases, it's just too soon to laugh in the face of a loss or violence or trauma. And the counselor and the client really need to be on the same wavelength and both trusting that it's a safe environment: No one's concerns are going to be trivialized, and no one is going to be put down. One of the key things we talk about in our training is to really respect that ... it's just too soon for some people to laugh.