Backstory: The Joy Laugh Club

A few hardy residents of Duluth, Minn., meet once a week, even in the cryogenic cold, to laugh in the name of feeling better about life.

They might be considered an odd bunch, these 16 club members bundled in coats, standing in the center of Duluth's town square, and some laughing so hard that tears are streaming down their cheeks, which can be dangerous in the winter in Minnesota.

Here's Warren Howe, a retired community college professor, short, still carrying a backpack over his pea-green coat, with a simple laugh that complements a broad smile: a steady ha-ha-ha, with a bit of shoulder movement. Then there's Ron Miller, a former truck-stop attendant, tall, who has a more drawn out guffaw. He throws his head back, lets out a howl, and then leans forward with a series of short, staccato chuckles. His eyes water.

But of the 16 laughing in a circle, Wendy Ruhnke, a social activist at the local YWCA, erupts in the wildest cachinnation. She just rasps and giggles at first, squinting her eyes and shaking, when suddenly: a high-pitched cackling scream, followed by a doubling over, a moment of breathless silence, mouth agape, and then a series of side-clutching bursts. Her laugh is legendary, and irresistibly contagious, though sometimes you're not sure if she's laughing or has been kicked in the stomach.

What's so funny? Nothing, really. This is simply laughter for the sake of laughter. Members meet here every Monday near noon, gather in a circle, take in a few deep breaths, and then just laugh. No joke.

Most believe the hilarity is for the sake of health - mental, spiritual, or physical. But there's actually something rebellious in this laughter, something harking back to the left-leaning, countercultural yearning that seeks to order social life efficiently, pool collective resources, and maximize the most happiness for the most people. A cacophony of laughing idiosyncrasies, organized.

This is Duluth, Minn., after all, where unions still claim a third of local workers (compared with about 1 in 8 in the rest of the country), and where a particular Midwest progressivism makes the state well to the left of most other states. But this has also always made Duluth a very earnest city, not known for its lightheartedness. Bob Dylan, who was born here, and grew up in the region, would never have laughed like this. (At least not without irony.)

The group has laughed for about four minutes, before dying down. As they recover, taking deep breaths and wiping their eyes, they begin to chat. "Do you know how Swedes and Finns and Norwegians emote?" says a woman named Claudia, her own Scandinavian cheeks flushed from the chill and the constant laughter. "Mostly, they just look at their shoes!" Next to her, Geri Valentine and Sara Pokorney throw back their heads and scream in delight.

Yes, they all say, there is a stoicism and reserve common to most residents here. Over a century and a half ago, immigrants - mostly from Northern Europe and especially from Scandinavia - carved Duluth into an icy bluff overlooking Lake Superior, and it became one of the largest iron ore-producing regions in the world. Though Duluth isn't the mining and port town it used to be, it still pumps taconite pellets and soybeans into the giant ocean vessels moored to its shipping docks.

So this isn't group therapy at a sunny Los Angeles mountain retreat or a posh Manhattan yoga studio. The punishing climate - the average annual snowfall would bury an NBA player and winter temperatures frequently dip below zero - doesn't make for lightheartedness, either.

This gives the laughter here a defiant edge, and the members of this small, laughing counterculture have the requisite Elysian motives, too. "It feels sooooo good!" says Ms. Ruhnke. "And you feel better, like, for days afterwards. If something funny happens, I would just start laughing uncontrollably again!"

Carmen Yurick agrees. "I do it because it makes me feel good, it gives me energy, and it lasts for about two days. And then I have to go home and laugh by myself. I look in the mirror every morning, and I say, 'Ah, I'm alive!' "

Wendy Grethen, a trained biologist, founded the group last August almost on a whim. She's a chronic hobbyist - playing the dulcimer is her life's passion - and this summer, when she bought a video camera and took up filmmaking, she went to the library and took out as many film shorts as she could.

When she watched a 35-minute documentary titled "The Laughing Club of India," about a physician in Bombay who treated patients by encouraging them to laugh together, she thought that would be an interesting group to start in Duluth, though not necessarily for therapeutic purposes.

"It was just sort of an experiment, to see if people would come," Ms. Grethen says. "And I like doing activities where everyone participates, and this was relatively simple."

But Grethen, too, reacted physically to the first meeting of the laughing club. The next day at work, she says, she started crying, and couldn't stop for almost an hour. "It was kind of a weird response - I mean, I don't cry in public, and I'm a reserved person, but it was just a let-go."

Along with many others in the group, Jan Karon, an original club member, recalls the laughing therapies of Norman Cousins, the well-known left-wing activist who, after becoming ill, began funding research into holistic healing techniques in the 1960s. He rejected pain medications and used group laughter to treat his ailments. "It's totally changing your body chemistry," Ms. Karon says, citing Mr. Cousin's ideas. "It's a very healthy thing to do. It is said that 15 minutes of laughter is worth six hours of meditation."

Yet many members say the feeling can be fleeting. After a few days of a physical euphoria, the chuckles dissipate. Grethen is in the process of making a CD of their Monday laughing sessions - call it a therapeutic laugh track for life - so members can laugh along with the group while alone or at home.

Surprisingly, the group does not need much to get the laughter going. As they gather in a circle for a second round, they take their deep breaths, and on the second exhale they each begin to chuckle. In a matter of seconds, they are laughing - Ruhnke is in stitches.

A few people from the courthouse walk by, startled. They glance over, but then quickly look away. Ms. Valentine notices, and after the laughter dies down, says to the group: "It's embarrassing to see a group of people standing in a circle and laughing, and I thought, maybe we should turn around and face them, or put up a sign saying, 'Everyone Welcome, All Welcome.' Wouldn't it be nice if they could come join us on the spur of the moment, get called in by the laughter?"

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