Flex Your Funnybone with the Providence Laughter Club

Larry O'Brien teaches yogis to strike a pose for puns.
Photograph by Lis O’Brien.

Larry O’Brien, seventy-one, laughs at nothing. No joke, as “No joke necessary.” O’Brien, a retired technical recruiter, runs the Providence Laughter Club and is a Laughter Yoga leader, practicing and teaching laughter for laughter’s sake to reduce stress and boost positive brain chemistry, a concept created in the 1990s by an Indian doctor. O’Brien conducts free sessions, now on Sunday nights via Zoom, until he can return to doing it at places like Hope Alzheimer’s Center in Cranston and the Cranston Senior Center.

How is laughing beneficial?
Laughing, pretending or for real, releases endorphins, raises serotonin and dopamine levels, oxygenates and accesses the good-feeling part of your brain. In times like these, people are feeling disconnected, and laughing, really laughing, brings a sense of community to them. Doing it yourself, you have to laugh every day, continuously, for fifteen to twenty minutes a day; that gets you the full benefit.

What’s the easiest way to practice this?
We do a series of exercises in our roughly one-hour sessions to get people laughing, and do deep breathing, too. The secrets are to make eye contact with each other and just have a sense of play. Studies have shown that kids laugh hundreds of times a day, and adults maybe ten or twenty. We need to be more kid-like, to laugh genuinely and often.

You were diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a young man, and later muscular dystrophy that has you in a wheelchair, so you took up meditation and found laughter therapy about ten years ago. Has it helped all that?
I’ve been living without meds for forty-five years, and it’s something I do every day, laughing. It’s a practice, you have to practice it. Even pretend laughing. It’s my experience that I can’t do pretend laughing long before it turns into real laughing. Laughing is really contagious.

What is a memorable moment for you in doing laughter sessions?
Well, it got to one point at the Cranston Senior Center that as soon as I walked in, the group just started laughing, and these are some people who aren’t necessarily going to get any jokes. But we just have a good time — and laugh a lot.

How can I make myself laugh?
Got a mirror? HAHAHAHAHAHA! But honestly, just laugh. As my grandfather said, “You might as well be happy, it doesn’t cost you anything.” facebook.com/providencelaughterclub