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Giggle, chortle, or guffaw — they all make you feel better, humor therapist says

Jean Allen (center) was one of those attending Mullen’s recent presentation at NECC.
Jean Allen (center) was one of those attending Mullen’s recent presentation at NECC.Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe

It’s been described as infectious, a healing agent, a diffuser, an immediate way to bond, the universal truth, humankind’s ultimate weapon. Aristotle even theorized that babies don’t have souls until the moment they let out their first chortle.

But can you remember the last time you had a near-gut-splitting, tear-inducing outburst of laughter?

Beneficial as it is, we simply don’t do it enough, according to Richard Mullen, a self-described gelotologist, a person who studies giggles and guffaws and their physical and psychological effects on the human body.

“Invest as much as you can into laughing,” the Georgetown resident, dressed in a suit with polka-dotted socks peeking out, said at a recent talk at Northern Essex Community College’s Haverhill campus. “There’s an amazing power of laughter.”

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Although laughter has been lauded for its numerous benefits for thousands of years, scientists have only recently begun to analyze it seriously, Mullen said. He cited the work of Dr. Lee Berk, who in the 1990s did a landmark study on the impact of funny videos on heart attack patients; Dr. Hunter “Patch’’ Adams, whose holistic and humorous focus on patient care was portrayed in the 1998 self-titled film starring Robin Williams; and Norman Cousins, whose “Anatomy of an Illness” chronicled his recovery from a degenerative disease, in which he credited long sessions of chuckling and a positive attitude.

Carrie Keville (left) and Mary Gill of Newbury were in attendance at Mullen’s talk on the power of laughter.
Carrie Keville (left) and Mary Gill of Newbury were in attendance at Mullen’s talk on the power of laughter. Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Mullen firmly believes in the healing power of laughter.

In the end, “if you’re having a lousy day, you caused it; if you’re having a great day, you caused it,’’ said Mullen, who conducts regular workshops, talks, and corporate programs on the topic.

Although not formally trained in gelotology — the science behind humor therapy — he has studied the field on his own, through workshops and seminars. He also works as a marketing and communications consultant and hypnotherapist.

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Research by scientists, doctors, and psychologists has identified numerous benefits to bouts of mirth, Mullen explained in his talk at Northern Essex as part of the college’s lifelong learning program’s Thursday lecture series.

Laughter improves immune response and blood flow to the brain, helps with recovery, produces endorphins, fights pain and diseases such as diabetes, reduces inflammation, infection, depression and chronic stress, lowers blood pressure, relieves arthritis and bursitis, and, as an added bonus, works your core muscles (especially if you get really cracked up), he said.

“It’s similar to a runner’s high,” Mullen said to about 50 people gathered in a large hall in the school’s technology center. “You get into the zone, you feel great.”

And that produces a sort of personal magnetism.

“Have you ever met someone that you just liked right away?” he asked. “If you’re laughing, you’re happy, people will like you more.”

But however good it is for us, for whatever reason — the overall stress and distraction of 21st-century life, a constrictive corporate culture, or personal disposition — we don’t laugh nearly as much as we should. Research has shown that kindergartners laugh between 200 and 400 times a day, Mullen said; by age 40, that rate plummets to a mere 17 times a day. In general, women are prone to chuckle 125 percent more than men, “easier, and at more things,” said Mullen.

“No, I really don’t think I laugh enough,” acknowledged Carrie Keville of Newbury, program coordinator at her town’s senior center, who attended the lecture in Haverhill.

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Her friend Mary Gill, on the other hand, has a different outlook.

“I’m a very positive person — I try to smile a lot, laugh a lot. Instead of being a downer, I’m an upper,” said the Newbury resident.

What gets her giggling? Her cat, sitcoms, and visiting with friends. “Life is good,” she said.

Carrie Keville, left and friend Mary Gill both of Newbury, took part in the "Laugh Yourself Healthy" event.
Carrie Keville, left and friend Mary Gill both of Newbury, took part in the "Laugh Yourself Healthy" event.Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

There are lots of things people can do to increase laughter or just foster an overall more positive attitude, like Gill’s, Mullen said: Smile frequently, say “thank you’’ often, share funny stories and jokes of the day, meditate or pray, volunteer, be less critical of yourself and others, and perform acts as simple as sending a greeting card.

“You’ll feel good sending it,” he said of the latter, “and the person receiving it will feel good, too.”

What you laugh at is also important, Mullen said. For instance, we can all admittedly get a good snicker out of the embarrassing antics portrayed on such shows as “America’s Funniest Home Videos” — but in the end that just promotes negative energy, he said.

And don’t assume that you’re inherently not funny. “Everybody’s got a great joke,” he said.

Keville proved that by getting up and telling the group about a unique bowling experience she had: Calling herself a “good bowler,” she described how she threw the ball, but instead of it going forward, it went up and over, landing in the next lane — for a strike.

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“The lesson we can learn is that we’re all comedians,” said Mullen.

His interest in gelotology grew out of hypnotherapy; he began looking for another method to help people when he realized that most of us live our lives asleep, as if on auto-pilot and not fully engaged, he said.

“Wherever I go, I want to create an epidemic of laughter,” he said. “Maybe it’s selfish, helping people to laugh, because I get so much back from it. I keep learning new things from this.”


Taryn Plumb can be reached at TarynPlumb1@gmail.com.