Alberta Cancer Foundation

Crack a Smile

HEALTH LOOKS FUNNY: Maybe Groucho Marx was onto something when he quipped: “A clown is like aspirin, only he works twice as fast.”(Billy Strean is in the happy-face T-shirt)

When Pam Barnaby filed into the auditorium at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton with some 300 colleagues one Friday afternoon for what was billed as a stress-reduction seminar, she didn’t have any expectations. But something happened while she was there. “I could feel energy in my hands, and I could feel it radiating into me. I felt lighter, energized,” she recalls. And it wasn’t just her: “I could feel the energy build in the room.”

The seminar leader was Billy Strean, author, University of Alberta professor in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, professional speaker – and certified laughter leader. (Seriously. The World Laughter Tour organization offers a program to train people to help others tap into their own wellspring of happiness.) “Laughing is a self-reinforcing behaviour,” says Strean. “It feels good, which encourages you to do it some more.”

The question is: how good? We all know laughing makes us feel better psychologically, but does it also have healing effects on our physical selves? Is laughter really the best medicine, even for those facing critical illnesses?

Scientists began to research the connection between the state of the mind and the state of the body after such people as Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, who brought humour to the hospital, and Norman Cousins shone a spotlight on the possibilities in the 1970s. Cousins, a political activist and journalist afflicted with various illnesses throughout his life, believed in the power of laughter to cure, prescribing himself a regimen of comedy films. Ten minutes of belly laughter, he said, brought him at least two hours of pain-free sleep.

Studies since then by various medical researchers, predominantly Dr. William Fry and Loma Linda University’s Dr. Lee Berk and Stanley Tan in California, would seem to back that up. The studies indicate that laughing reduces stress hormones, lowers blood pressure, increases heart rate and oxygen flow, boosts the immune system, and triggers the release of endorphins – natural painkillers.

And there’s a significant bonus, as Strean points out: all this comes free of cost, free of drugs, and, for the vast majority of people, free of negative side effects.
A Ph.D. with a background in sport psychology, Strean considers laughter an exercise, where frequency, intensity and duration all count towards good health. And he thinks laughing in groups is more beneficial than doing so alone. “In a group, you have laughter, you have joy, you have connection,” says Strean, who outlines his approach in his book The HoHo Dojo: Lighten Up and Love Life Laughing.

He notes that a person dealing with a critical illness can view it one of two ways: With feelings of anger, betrayal, denial and/or grief, or with a positive outlook, which some science would seem to show taps into the body’s healing powers. And having a genuine, belly-shaking laugh is an obvious place to start feeling more positive. “Laughter is the ambassador to all the positive emotions,” Strean says, paraphrasing Cousins.

Lana Shepherd, an occupational therapist, has been a laughter yoga leader in Edmonton for the past year. (Dr. Madan Kataria, an Indian physician, founded the laughter yoga club movement in 1995; in these, laughter is built through a series of exercises, not by reaction to humour.) Shepherd says she’s witnessed some positive results in the two places she leads regularly: The Sturgeon Hospital program for adults and the Good Samaritan Society Millwoods Care Centre, a long-term residence where most of the participants are in wheelchairs and some are also on oxygen. That doesn’t get in the way of a good laugh, says Shepherd.

The participants’ reviews are positive. “They’ve given me feedback about how much better they feel after a session of laughter yoga.”

Barnaby, too, is hoping to help cancer patients at the Cross Cancer Institute feel better within the next few months. She’d led a laughter session with about 100 staff and she saw the transformation, as with other groups she’s worked with: “That look of almost defensiveness is gone, and it’s replaced by one of almost pure joy,” she recalls. “Without fail, they feel better, rejuvenated, happier.”

And who, no matter their health situation, can frown upon feeling better?

Laugh It Up

Billy Strean runs laughter sessions throughout Edmonton, both in regular programs, such as the laughter club at the University of Alberta, and at the invitation of organizations. For up-to-date information on current and upcoming sessions, and for more information in general, visit

To find out more about laughter yoga, visit the site of the founder, Dr. Madan Kataria:

To learn more about laughter clubs or to find ones in Alberta, see