With a chorus of half-hearted ho-hos, ha-has, and hee-hees, a small group mostly of students did their best Tuesday to laugh on Boston Common.
The forced merriment was an exercise meant to help participants expel the negative energy brewing in their brains, and the anxiety trapped somewhere in their chests.
“It indeed is the best medicine,” said Sushil Bhatia, the Suffolk University professor who led the exercise. “Even if it’s a fake laughter — fake it until you make it. The body does not know the difference, and it slowly joins in and it helps you relax and helps you feel much, much better.”
The free outdoor mind-cleansing session, called “Happiness through Laughter,” came a week in advance of the Nov. 8 presidential election. The campaign, marked by vitriol and pessimism about the country’s future, has left many on edge.
“Everybody is stressed out, and everybody is worried about what’s going to happen to the economy,” said Bhatia, founder of the Laughing Clubs of America. “So when we started talking with Suffolk, we decided this is the perfect time to do it.”
Around 14 students — and one visitor from out of town — came together on the Common with Bhatia.
The session began with introductions as attendees shook hands with the strangers beside them. Then they pushed out various cackles and giggles as directed by the instructor.
“No hesitation, no shame,” Bhatia said to help the group get over the fear of what other people might think.
Bhatia, who teaches a class called “Happiness,” even let out a laugh of his own — one that sounded like Dracula’s sinister snicker.
From there, the group did what Bhatia calls the “Cat Nap,” lifting their arms high into the air before bringing them down again to their sides, making the meowing sound of a cat followed by an unnatural chortle.
Bhatia then guided them through a process called “Shy Laughter.” Participants covered their faces with both hands, as if playing peekaboo, and then quickly moved them away while emitting laughter.
All this culminated in a 20-minute silent meditation in which attendees sat with their legs folded and concentrated on their breathing — as construction vehicles growled, MBTA buses roared, and cars honked, near the public park on Beacon Hill.
“You can cut off everything from the noise,” said Bhatia, founder of the Laughing Clubs of America. “So long as you focus on breathing.”
When the silent meditation came to an end, Bhatia talked about a term he coined: “Thinking neutral.”
The idea bucks the traditional motto to “think positive,” which Bhatia said can stress people out because it’s often hard to meet their own expectations.
“Everybody always says think positive, but thinking positive is so stressful,” he said. “And thinking negative is not good. But thinking neutral, we help our mind to calm down. And a calm and quiet mind is a happy and creative mind.”
While some might think it awkward to express laughter without first seeing or hearing something funny, participants found that wasn’t so.
“Not whatsoever,” said Logan Philbrick, 18, a freshman at Suffolk. “I felt really relaxed.”
Aisling Mehigan, a junior at the school, said she was used to the exercises because she is enrolled in Bhatia’s “Happiness” course.
“This is how our class happens every Tuesday,” she said. “I’m not a morning person at all. Tuesdays now are my favorite day of the week.”
She added, “I go to this class, I feel refreshed, and I’m ready to start my day. ... It motivates me.”
As students quickly scattered and merged back onto the busy sidewalks, Bhatia gave them one last word of advice.
“Keep on laughing,” he said. “And change your life.”Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.