LIFE DOCTOR

I SAY, I say, I say. There's a sale on at the pet shop: all the budgies are going "cheep".

On reading those lines did you: (a) have a jolly good laugh; (b) smirk slightly; (c) curse the decline of broadsheet newspapers; (d) say "but where is the sale?".

If your answer was (c) or (d) you're not laughing enough; (b) you're probably not laughing enough but you may have taste; (a) you're either very cheery or you're under 10.

Concerned that we are not laughing enough, the Oxford-based Happiness Project, which works with the NHS, as well as corporate and private clients, has produced a laughter album. This is a tape of people laughing. And, er, that's it.

Men, women, children laughing. Different techniques. Almost silent straining, orang-utan noises and, of course, the just-kicked-donkey hee-haw honks. The therapy comes from the fact that laughter, like yawning, is contagious. As you listen to these stupid noises, it is hard to avoid chuckling.

"This is a tape to put on when you are stuck in a traffic jam or you've just had a row with your partner," says Happiness Project director Ben Renshaw. "It reminds you that true enlightenment means lightening up."

It is a well-known statistic that while children laugh 50 times a day, miserable adults manage only a measly six.

Dr Joel Goodman, director of the Humor Project in New York, says a good daily laughs-total is 15. And, just as you try to up your vegetable intake, you should work at getting more giggles. "Even if you have to look for the humour," he says. "If you can manage to reach your humour quota, you're probably feeling pretty good about life."

So far, so unscientific. Let's look at exactly why laughing is a wise investment. When you laugh, you flex and relax. Fifteen facial muscles get worked plus dozens of others around your body. Your pulse and respiration increase for a while, oxygenating the blood, and the brain is stimulated to release pleasurable endorphins, the body's natural anaesthetic and pain-killer.

Evidence that laughter can boost immune levels is not conclusive but growing. The physical action may increase the activity of lymphocytes and antibodies and raise levels of the disease-fighting immunoglobulin A in the bloodstream. One study has even suggested that immunoglobulin A can be passed through breast milk. So funny mothers could have babies who catch fewer colds.

But how do you laugh more? The original Patch Adams, the Gesundheit Institute director who made the hospital environment silly to aid recovery, collected a "laughter library" of more than 12,000 items, including the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup and Monty Python's Life of Brian. He saved this library for miserable days.

To me, this is fine for people who can laugh over and over again at Blackadder quotes. But I can't. If anybody says "You're madder than mad Jack McMad" again, I'm more likely to cry.

So what do I do on the Holy Grail hunt for laughter? Ben Renshaw says: "Just spend time with people who make you laugh. Relax. Think of laughing a lot. Eventually it will come." Does derisive laughter count? I'm good at that. "It may not be as good psychologically but it triggers the same physiological response."

So that's good news. I can snort snidely at Blackadder re-runs with official approval.

`The Laughter Album' is available price pounds 7.99 plus pounds 1.50 p&p from the Happiness Project, Elms Court, Chapel Way, Oxford OX2 9LP.

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