In my youth, my hatred of humankind was such that I would rather sit next to a turd than my fellow man. I know this exactly to be true, because one morning upon jumping on the tube at Hounslow East, I discovered some early bird scoundrel had lovingly laid a massive brown log upon one of the seats.
Brilliant, I thought. If I sit opposite that, no one will come near a 10m radius of me.
I cracked open a can of cider. Result.
You’d think, then, that a laughter club in the middle of a park in country Victoria would be a cognitive challenge. However, I’ve come to realise since those youthful days that a) being open-minded and friendly to others can bring surprises and delights, b) the world neither owes me nor is out to get me, and c) amphetamines are best left alone.
I’ve come to investigate the club with Lucy and Stampy, who are game for a, uh, laugh, even if that means joining in with a group of 12 pensioners and oddballs at 8.30 on a Saturday morning. We’re conducted by a couple who have been laughter club devotees for years. “It releases… enzymes,” Barry says with a note of uncertainty. He slaps his beer gut. “Keeps you fit, as well.”
Gathering in a big circle, we’re run through a series of exercises: running around like an aeroplane with our arms outstretched and our “hahahahahaha” being the splutter of the propellor; having imaginary pillow fights, guffawing all the while; and running up to each other, staring into each other’s eyes, while tittering behind our hands “like Japanese women”. It’s all a bit manic and alarming, but so far, nothing ruptured.
In between each bout we retake our positions in the circle and clap with cupped hands (so that the vibrations run up our arms), chanting: “ho ho ha ha ha, ho ho ha ha ha”.
The idea, of course, is that faking merriment within the diaphragm region can fool the brain into releasing feel-good endorphins and boosting immunity. In fact, while laughter is now an innate instinct that comes into effect at around three or four months of age, Robert Provine, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, theorises that the panting of chimpanzees as they play developed into laughter as our ancestors developed speech as a way of relieving stress and communicating our playful intent.
More exercises, back here in the park: roaring in a jolly manner like Father Christmas; doing a dance – “of your preference” – around the circle; mimicking a kookaburra and a meerkat, chortling and mincing our way over invisible hot coals; and chuckling in an imaginary elevator, into which we are crammed with all 12 others.
Towards the end, we’re instructed to use our laughter for the power of good. “Does anyone know of anybody who could do with some healing laughter?” Barry calls out.
“A double fatality!” one woman practically screams before anyone else gets a chance to think. “There was a double fatality in the newspaper last night. Car crash. Tragic.”
I’m not going to allege this lady may also be a funeral gatecrasher, combing the papers for meaningful moments, but as Stampy notes later, the laughter club does seem to be full of lonely types.
Focusing our energy, we laugh at increasing volume, rushing towards the centre of the circle, arms outstretched. We do that a few times, cackling our intent at the bereaved families.
Afterwards, the three of us compare notes and find: 1) we feel like we’ve had a fairly pleasing aerobic workout, 2) we felt a bit like we were in a cult, and 3) none of us found the laughter siblings-at-the-dinner-table contagious, which was a bit disappointing. But for a recovering gelotophobe, it’s a nice hurdle to hop.