It’s not easy to be a gelotologist in modern-day America. The study of laughter is difficult in a society that sometimes seems to frown on the frivolity.

Sure, laughter is a universal language of joy — even babies giggle before they speak — but there are still people out there who endeavor to stifle the snickers.

They spread anti-laughter propaganda, making the innocent guffaw out to be an assassin of productivity. They say it’s an audible indicator of tomfoolery; it’s a nuisance. Even worse, they maintain, it’s contagious. The public is at constant risk.

So laughter has been all but banished from workplaces, schools and hospital operating rooms. Office managers reprimand the laugh-prone underlings, and giggling second graders are shushed and made to stay after class to scrape gum off desks.

Laughter’s adversaries have shamed the chucklers of the world into near seclusion — they’re now forced to meet in dimly lit clubs late at night like a secret snickering society. In these havens of ha ha, laughter is actually encouraged through the telling of jokes explicitly intended to elicit such outbursts.

Some proponents have worked to free the guffaw and raise laughter to its rightful place on the scale of human sound effects, but followers of the movement are still obliged to practice their laughter in the privacy of their own homes out of fear of public reprisal.

It’s a pity, too, because laughter really is a do-gooder. The act of laughing lowers stress hormones. It promotes a positive attitude. Some even believe it to have a pain-killing effect. It simply makes the laugher feel good.

Fortunately, there are ways to combat our slow descent into laughlessness and to relearn the instinct that, over time, has been dulled by the humorless.

Laughter yoga is the practice of laughing for no reason. It’s based on the idea that the human body is unable to tell the difference between real and fake laughter, so the laugher gets the same positive physiological and psychological benefits.

Instructor Katie West, founder the Levity Institute, leads a laughter yoga class every other Friday at Yogave in Falmouth. She also admits that laughing for no reason is a little weird at first.

To get us laughing novices started during a recent class, West had the group sit in a circle, and we one by one introduced ourselves, after which we were to unceremoniously tip our heads back and letting loose a collective laugh. “Hi, I’m Shannon. Ha ha ha ha!”

With no hilarious prompt to rely on, the fake laughing felt awkward.

Glances jumped around the circle, our eyes met momentarily in shared discomfort. The discomfort made me laugh nervously. It started to make everyone laugh. The discomfort started to bleed into silliness, which made us all laugh a little more. And the laughter caught and grew louder.

I’m talking real laughter, the sort that shows teeth, crinkles the eyes and shakes the shoulders.

West led us through an array of exercises where we roamed the room, clapped, shook hands, threw our arms up and shouted. It all felt odd. And it looked odd. But each exercise resulted in a roomful of real laughter.

One attendee commented about how good it felt to laugh out loud and not have to worry about being reprimanded or told to keep it down. Others felt lighter, happier or more relaxed.

Even as the class wound down and we reclined on blankets to breathe in and breathe out, the laughter lingered. I felt it hovering in my chest. But not wanting to disrupt the calm, I pressed my lips together in an attempt to quash the urge.

It was futile. I started laughing. And the laughing grew more robust the more I tried to restrain it. I was laughing the silent laugh of someone deep in the throes of hilarity. My nostrils flared, my face reddened.

And finally, uncontrollably, the snicker burst from my mouth and into the room, where it hung momentarily, until the classmate to my left began laughing too.

Then another. Then another.

The laughter had been liberated.

Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be contacted at 791-6333 or at:

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