Taking a Serious Look at Laughs

New York conference explores the restorative potential of mirth in daily life

`NOW close your eyes." It was a poignant moment in the midst of a weekend conference. Hedy Schleifer, a family counselor from Florida, concluded a workshop on human relations with soft music and a few quiet moments for each person to tenderly "hug the little child within themselves."

Eyes closed. Tears flowed down a few cheeks. It was hanky time. Then suddenly, through the walls, came raucous, eye-opening laughter from a workshop next door.

Welcome to Sixth Annual Conference on Humor and Creativity, where bursts of laughter and fun could even pierce walls. More than 1,200 participants wouldn't have had it any other way.

"My goal in this conference," said Joel Goodman, founder and director of The Humor Project, the sponsor of the conference, "was to have a lot of fun, but not have the meeting just for fun. I'm convinced that on a global level humor has a lot of serious payoffs for us."

An immediate payoff on the first night of the conference held two weekends ago was a three-hour performance by the master of self-deprecation and piano-playing, Victor Borge. "I've been learning Japanese," he said, standing by his piano, "with a little tape machine playing under my pillow while I'm sleeping. It plays for several hours. I can speak Japanese now, but unfortunately only when I'm sound asleep."

Far away from the hard-edged humor of many of today's younger comedians, Borge brought out all his old, lovable chestnuts and set the tone for the conference.

"I received a letter from a woman who attended my performance recently," Borge said. "She said she hadn't laughed so heartily since her husband died."

Just as the flow of Borge's humor is planned for maximum laughs, so did Dr. Goodman switch from thinking about humor as merely spontaneous to something to examine and encourage:

"I used to do stress management workshops," said Goodman, who started The Humor Project in 1977, "then I suggested programs on humor as a way of preventing burnout. I would literally hear a sigh of relief. People said they were coming out of stress managment programs feeling more stressed. So I put together workshops on humor."

The Humor Project is now a for-profit organization providing programs, resources, conferences, and publications to a world-wide clientele.

The latest conference attracted educators, health-care professionals, funeral directors, psychiatrists, business people, engineers, and clowns. People came from as far away as Japan and Norway. "We had to limit attendance to 1,200," said Goodman, who remains awed at the enormous interest in humor and laughter. Last year his organization answered 50,000 letters about humor-related matters.

As The Humor Project has grown, so has serious interest in humor. William Fry Jr., a clinical professor emeritus at Stanford University Medical School, has conducted studies on laughter and humor since 1953. At the conference he said, "By bringing attention to humor, Joel and his group have helped bring about deeper scientific value as well as the human value."

Dr. Fry and other scientists agree: Everybody is born with the potential for a sense of humor. Cultural environment then shapes individual nuances. In addition, if anyone steps up regularly to the buffet of humor and partakes of the feast, studies have indicated humor can cut stress on the job and improve performance, maximize learning potential, reduce fear, improve health, improve intrapersonal relationships, and often become the prime lubricant for creativity.

Examples of how humor pops up in unexpected places were legion at the conference. Elliot Masie, a training consultant from New York, told the story of 350 sleepy US tourists arriving by plane in Madrid, Spain, at 11 at night. But all their luggage was on another plane in Paris. Bedlam reigned as the customer service person fell apart.

`THEN," said Masie, "a baggage handler stood before the angry crowd and said, 'OK, this is a terrible situation,' and then gesturing enthusiastically with national pride he exclaimed: 'But you're in Spain! Now, what do you want to do first?' "

Conference-goer Patrick O'Brian from New York told the story of a big family adopting a 10-year-old boy. When the boy met his new mother he said, "I hate you" with an expletive included. The mother ignored the statement, and later that day the family had a birthday party and cake for the boy even though it wasn't his birthday. On the cake were the words, "I hate you." The family delighted in the fact that the boy could now "eat his words."

"This is my fifth conference," said Sis Ortlieb, a recently retired teacher from Kerhonkson, N.Y., who wore a hat with a dog and a fireplug on it. "Schools don't encourage humor," she said, "so initially I came for validation, for permission to have fun and do this kind of stuff. I wouldn't miss this for the world."

To skeptics who might contend a conference on humor would be forced, with jokesters lurking everywhere, Tom Crum, who teaches the martial art of aikido, suggested that humor can be disarming. "It can help resolve conflict," he said, "and can be developed like any skill."

For Ann Van Eron, an organization development consultant from New York, humor is fundamental to survival. "There's emotional pressure in society now," she said. "Businesses are closing down, and many are faced with having to do more with less. Being here reminds me of the great healing power of humor."

"Tom Bartlett, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration software systems engineer, said, "I always try to change dull meetings with humor." Why did he come to the conference? "I was seriously ill for a long time," he said, "and I consider this preventive medicine."

Humor scholar Fry contends that "Humor makes one a different person. This power of effect doesn't stop below the neck ... mirth is accompanied by perturbations thoughout the body. Our very biology, our physical being, is touched. We are strummed like a large guitar."

As Joel Goodman was in the process of organizing the conference, the Gulf War erupted. "I thought, 'What if we gave a humor conference and nobody came?' " he said. "Well, look what happened: We had a 'fool' house."

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