I’m in the living room of a stately 19th century villa in Cologne, Germany. The light is dim, the curtains drawn against the grey afternoon outside. On the floor, lying side by side like proverbial sardines in the can, are 25 middle-aged Germans. They’re colourfully dressed, by German standards, lots of stockinged feet in comfortable sandals. Their eyes are closed, their faces in deep concentration.
Heiner Uber, a balding 45 year old in Converse Allstars, jeans and a silk cravat is telling a story: imagine you are walking through a vast landscape, he says, and you come upon a red house. You approach the house and discover that the door is open. It’s low, so you have to duck to enter. And inside you discover piles of children lying on the floor, laughing. And you lie down among the children, and in your minds, you travel back to the time when you too were a laughing child.
And then Heiner Uber asks his listeners to let their fantasies roam. There’s a long silence, the odd stomach gurgle. And then …
One after the other, Ubers’ students succumb. Half an hour later, they’re still going strong.
Heiner Uber is Germany’s best known laugh therapist. He has written two books on laughter and, since 2001, has been giving laughter seminars in Germany and abroad. THIS villa in Cologne is one of several venues …used regularly by hoho-haha, the Association of German Yogic Laughter Therapists.
Uber: I was in India, working on a book that had nothing to do with Yogic laughter, but one morning I was walking through Mumbay and I came along a park where some people meet and practice yogic laughter and it look to me really curious and bizarre. One guy from the group come up to me and say when you want to learn swimming, you have to get wet and so I say OK. For the first 10 and 15 minutes, I was ashamed and shy, I did not want to make the exercises…. but after 15 minutes…. it was just like a virus coming into my brain, I call it laughter virus and after this moment, I start laughing more and more, I could not end.
And nor can they
Uber: I know there is a cliché that Germans are very serious, they are very shy, they do not like to laugh, but I think that this is not true. Maybe the Germans are very critical, so first they want to know what happens, what it is, what happens in your brain, they wanna have a scientific background, you know they are a little deep thinking, they are not so open like Italians or French people or Scandinavians who say, OK let’s do it.
Of the laughing bodies on the living room floor, one demonstrates exceptional volume and endurance. Corinna Walla is a 40 year old mechanical technician. Her hair and sweater are an identical shade of cherry red. She’s an athletic laugher, clutching her knees to her chest.
Corinna: I come to this seminar to learn laughing, most of the time I can’t laugh, there are so many people that don’t laugh and I think it’s not so good for the people if they don’t laugh in their life.
Naomi: Do you think Germans have an especially hard time laughing?
Corinna: I think it’s a European problem. The people are too much stressed, the people are looking to the money and they cannot laugh, we don’t have so much sun, that’s a problem too, with laughing we have more sun.
This isn’t Corinna’s first time here. In fact, asking around the group, I learn that many of the participants are regulars at Uber’s weekend seminars, which include two days of exercises, instruction and lunch, all for €300. Some have chronic illnesses, some are studying yogic laughter and many just seem to enjoy the atmosphere of tolerance and community.
Willian Drucks, his belly giggling under a blue and white checked button-down, offered Corinna stiff competition. Mr. Drucks worked for 30 years in trade export before becoming a laughter therapist. He attends Uber’s seminar to study with the master. I ask him why Germans are willing to pay for laughter.
William: We are very different, I think. We need reasons for laughing, reasons to react with laughing, nobody thinks that it is a reaction but we need that and to laugh without explanation, to laugh without seeing why does this person laugh is very strange for us.
But happiness isn’t just something to laugh about. It’s becoming a subject of serious study. In the USA, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002, has received public funding to formulate a ‘National Well-Being Account’ – a sort of Gross Domestic Emotional Product.
Working in a similar area is Richard Layard, senior economic advisor toTony Blair and the mind behind England’s recent labour market reforms. His book ‘The happy society’ calls for a policy shift away from the goal of economic growth and towards that of greater happiness.
The scholar who has gone the greatest lengths to quantify happiness is Ruut Veenhoven, Professor of ‘social conditions for human happiness’ at Erasmus University in the Netherlands and director of the largest international database of happiness statistics:
Veenhoven: The world Database of happiness is a collection of empirical research findings on happiness. And there’s a lot of philosophical speculation but there’s also research and I gather the results and I’ve done that for 30 years now.
Professor Veenhoven, bearded and bespectacled, sits in his office overlooking the harbour of Rotterdam. He looks friendly but no-nonsense. I ask him what accounts for the increase in happiness research.
Veenhoven: If we have solved the most evident deficits, if there is no poverty and dictatorship, then the question is what next? It’s really a question what will make you happy…..And the other thing is that we’re now pretty confident that happiness is something we can investigate. Earlier people thought happiness can’ t be defined, happiness can’t be measured, happiness is relative. Now we have discovered that none of that is true and that it can be investigated just as we can investigate the cause of illness.
And is there not a slight issue with different understandings of happiness, I ask?
Veenhoven: This is known as the problem of cultural bias in measurement and there is certainly is such a bias. But it seems that the bias is fairly small.
The Database ranks countries according to a happiness scale of 1 to 10. Surveys are conducted as live or telephone interviews, at least 1000 per country. The questions try to get at the heart Veenhoven’s definition of happiness: how much a person likes their life as a whole.
At the top of the list are Switzerland and Denmark, tied with 8.2. At the bottom is Tanzania with 3.2. Canada has a respectable 7.6. And Germany?
Veenhoven: Out of my head, I would say it’s 7.2, which is not bad. It ‘s slightly lower than the Netherlands and Denmark, but … There is an upward trend. There was a temporary dip in Germany after reunification, not because of reunification itself, but because a lot of Ossies came to the West and these people were less happy … that depressed the average. But now in Eastern Germany, average happiness is rising and I would guess they will reach West German levels in say ten, twenty years.
I ask Professor Reenhoven, who has correlated happiness with everything from tea consumption to organ transplants, whether laughter increases overall happiness.
Veenhoven: I don’t know. I never checked. That would be an individual level correlation. Although you could also check in countries where people laugh more, maybe they’re happier. Speculating on the matter, I would say yes because fun raises laughter but on the other hand, humour is typically a way of coping with misery and it seems that in badly governed countries such as the Soviet Union, there is a lot of humour, but still the Russians are pretty depressed.
Back at the villa in Cologne, the group is recovering with coffee and cake. Although he has never studied laughter in an academic context, Heiner Uber has his own theories about its social function.
Uber: You know laughter is a peace gesture, when I laugh at you, I cannot bite you, it’s totally relaxed, all the muscles in the lower part of my face are totally relaxed, this is the peace gesture of laughter and I look in your eyes and I look at you, it’s just a signal, don’t be afraid from me, it’s a well-feeling from me towards you and I think this would change the world so I always think of bringing Yogic laughter to the UN.
After cake, the group gathers to watch a television program which shows Indians making lion faces at each other and American doctors in lab coats discussing laughter’s medical benefits. Then the chairs are cleared aside and the group returns to the exercises they had learned in the morning. This time they ask me to join. We form two teams and have a snowball fight, throwing balls of laughter at each other. Then we cook a big cauldron of laughter soup and ladle it into each other’s mouths. Then we zip on our invisible kangaroo suits and hop around the room. In between the exercises, we drink mango laughies.
Then we rev up our lawn mowers, which run on laughter, and begin mowing the living room floor. A woman in her 60s wearing plaid pants and a cashmere turtleneck sidles up to me with her lawn mover and says, ‘We’re idiots’! I have a feeling that Professor Veenhoven would have to agree. But I doubt that he’d disapprove.
Veenhoven: Oh yes, there’s a lot of talk about trends in happiness. A lot of my colleagues say that happiness is going down. And some of the colleagues who really look at the data say it’s remaining at the same level, actually that’s the majority opinion at this moment. But my reading of the data is that we are getting happier and based on the most recent data, the best collection, I think I’m right. Happiness is on the rise.
By 5 o’clock, the grey afternoon in Cologne has turned into night. The group is sitting in a circle. Some look rejuvenated, others a little unsure where this leaves them, or more importantly, whether the laughter will leave them when they exit Uber’s realm. The laugh master is giving an earnest lecture on the challenges that life sometimes presents, the ones that are hard to laugh at. He also explains the very real danger of post laughter hangovers and dopamine drops. The best medicine, he says: 4 or 5 bananas or, better yet…
Uber: You take your index fingers, deep breath in – the group, follows his every move – and pushes the corners of their mouths into great big smiles.