Laugh Your Stress Off

laughter clubPhotos by Sasha Pedro.

The Somerville Laughter Club Teaches 12 Types of Laughter

Walter Ness starts our conversation with a joke.

“What do you call two pyromaniacs sharing an apartment?” 

The punchline: “Matching roommates.”

It’s a fitting beginning to an interview with a man who specializes in laughter. Ness, founder of the Somerville Laughter Club, has studied the mechanics and effects of laughter and developed his own technique, which he shares at the group’s monthly meetings at Unity Somerville. 

In addition to the club, he’s run a mindfulness-based comedy theater group and drafted a comeback guidebook titled “Jests In Time,” which features over a dozen sections including puns, self-deprecating humor, and “miscellaneous snappy comebacks.”

How did you get started in the world of laughter?

I was invited to the Arlington Laughter Club when it first started. I had such a good time laughing that I decided to keep going. It’s not that I couldn’t laugh, I had no trouble laughing, but it intrigued me.

A lot of the regular people would be saying, “I wish I could laugh like this when I was at home.” And I’m thinking, “OK, there’s something wrong with this picture.” So I tried different varieties of laughter. I’m into mind-body, and I’m very aware of chi energy flow, and so I am able to be more aware of the sensations in my body than most people are.

I wanted to see what would happen if I started teaching people different styles of laughter. Most people have one style. I started meeting a lot of people who couldn’t laugh, and what happens when a person can’t laugh, and you try to encourage them, they get more tense. 

So I was lucky that I came across an article by a scientist who proved that if you make a left fist it activates the right side of the brain, which is in control of motor functions. And I said, “What would happen if a person who can’t laugh made a left fist?” And they start laughing, it’s like I found the key.

That was the beginning of me creating over a dozen different ways of laughing. The idea is that, now that you know how to laugh, do you know you can actually laugh with the throat, chest, abdomen. 

What do you do when you have a newcomer? How do you bring them in, get them started?

Walter Ness. Photo by Sasha Pedro.

It’s very easy, I just tell them “Make a left fist.” It’s neuroscience, it really works. I haven’t had anybody fail doing that. I also teach them the traditional way, fake-it-til-you-make-it. And then I show the new style, where you actually use the understanding of laughter, and how to get it started and keep it going, just so you know you have that ability.

I actually present the mechanics of how things work. The prevailing theory, or belief, is that we laugh because of social interaction—but it’s different when you’re on your own, you have to laugh, and you don’t know how to get it started, and keep maintaining it. People insist that is has to be real. Well, it is real.

[We’re] the only laughter club that teaches over 12 styles and the techniques of laughter, the methods of how to make laughter occur. I’ve made it a point, this is how you become aware of your body, this is how you activate this part of the body to laugh. The emphasis here is not that you laugh, it’s that when you’re in a really bad situation, you can cause laughter to occur.

One of the things I point out to people when they have trouble laughing is that they don’t move. If you actually look at people that are laughing, they move their head, they move their body, because laughter is movement. When you’re young, you go to school, [and are told,] “Sit down, behave yourself.” High school: “Sit down, behave yourself.” College: “Sit down, behave yourself.” Work: “Sit down, behave yourself.” So by the time they show up over here, they don’t know how to move.

Why is it so important for people to be able to laugh on their own?

I was at a party, and a woman said, “I can change my mood by laughing.” That’s the basic idea. We don’t realize that we can change our emotions like we can change words coming out of our mouths. It’s not that we stop the emotions, it’s that we change the duration of how long they last. You can actually do that, but you have to know it’s possible.

The Somerville Laughter Club meets monthly, typically the second Friday of the month, at Unity Somerville, located at 6 William St.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and conciseness.

This story originally appeared in the Environmental Issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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