Middletown's Bette Meci is out to prove that laughter really is the best medicine.
Bette Meci Middletown Laughter is no joke for Bette Meci of Orange County. She leads groups throughout the Hudson Valley that promote the therapeutic power of laughter to help reduce stress, improve health, and generally brighten one’s outlook on life. “The world is more challenging than ever,” says Meci. “Life has gotten so stressful that many people have literally forgotten how to laugh.”
Meci and her husband Peter, who own the AVC Hearing Aid Center in Middletown and Newburgh, are themselves no strangers to stress. She explains: “A lot of our customers are profoundly hearing-impaired. Many are on Medicaid, struggling to get by economically. Also, it’s no easy task to properly fit a hearing aid. I was getting to the point, after 32 years in the business, of coming home feeling burned out and exhausted.”
One day Meci read a magazine article about therapeutic laughter. “I thought, ‘That’s for me!’ ” she recalls. The article mentioned an international organization, the World Laughter Tour, that’s dedicated to spreading the notion that laughter can, indeed, be a powerful antidote for many ailments of modern life. The tour was founded by Ohio psychologist Steve Wilson after a trip to India, where he met physician Madan Kataria, a therapeutic laughter expert. It’s a long-established practice there, where more than 800 groups meet regularly to perform exercises based on centuries-old principles of yoga that physically induce a laughter response.
The couple decided to take a local therapeutic laughter course sponsored by the tour. “The emphasis is on becoming aware of laughter as a genuine form of exercise,” says Meci. And because laughter is universal, the Laughter Tour, which has chapters around the world, also promotes a doctrine of international peace and brotherhood.
After completing the course, Meci became a Certified Laughter Leader, heading workshops that teach folks how to guffaw with glee. When she offers her Hudson Valley sessions, which include anywhere from 20 to 70 participants in venues ranging from nursing homes to Kiwanis Clubs, some folks first assume Meci’s there to entertain them with wisecracks and one-liners.
“I explain that therapeutic laughter isn’t about telling jokes. Jokes are subjective. What one person finds funny another might find offensive. But laughter is universal. I tell people I’m not here to make them laugh. I’m here to give them permission to laugh. And it’s actually laughter for the body as well as the mind.”
Group sessions last about an hour, involving deep-breathing techniques and gentle movements that produce physiological changes. This helps improve blood supply, boost the immune system, and strengthen the heart, lungs, and other organs. “Some exercises create belly laughs, while one of the sequences involves a ‘ha-ha, tee-hee, hee-hee’ series,” says Meci. “We even practice silent laughter.”
Meci’s group, the Sunshine and Joy Laughter Club, also includes informal discussions to help people open up emotionally. “You’d be amazed how many people start out by saying there’s nothing funny in their lives; nothing they can laugh about. And some people don’t even say it but you can see it in their faces. We help them become more aware of emotions — like anger, fear, guilt, or jealousy — that they can learn to release through laughter. It’s all done in a lighthearted manner. It’s not about giving psychological advice.”
Meci’s and other Laughter Tour groups seem to have reconnected to something that’s sorely needed now. A recent study points out that back in the 1950s, the average person laughed about 18 minutes a day. Now the daily merriment quota is a mere six minutes.
“The good thing is you don’t even need a sense of humor to take part in a Laughter Club,” says Meci. “Even a sourpuss is welcome. You just have to be willing to try. The results can be remarkable — and I’m not joking!” — Rita Ross