Nira Berry laughs. A lot.
A chronic chuckler who gets the most mileage out of every giggle, the Potomac resident often throws her head back and lets loose a roar.
What’s so funny? Everything. Nothing. “I can just pull it out of my pocket when I need it,” she says.
For Berry, 52, these expressions of joy sprout from an unlikely source—illness.
Following a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2001, she began seeking ways to ease the pain and weakness she was experiencing from the treatments. That’s when she came across research suggesting that laughter can affect stress, pain, mood and even the immune system. From that point on, she began forcing herself to laugh for at least a few minutes every day.
“It was awkward at first,” she says, “but I noticed I felt better after, so I continued to do it more and more.”
Berry became such a believer in the power of laughter that she put aside work in business management and promotions, and traveled to Switzerland in 2007 to become certified in laughter yoga by Madan Kataria. A physician from India, Kataria had founded the laughter yoga movement in 1995, replacing traditional yoga poses with activities that promote laughter and feelings of well-being in participants.
Shortly after her return, Berry started the company LaughingRx. She made a DVD, Laugh Off Stress, and now conducts hundreds of interactive laughter presentations each year for Suburban Hospital, Booz Allen Hamilton, the National Institutes of Health and other clients, as well as for the public at venues such as The Promenade Towers in Bethesda.
Berry hasn’t had a recurrence of cancer. She says she feels healthier and less stressed overall, and rarely even catches a cold.
“Laughter made a big difference in how I survived that part of my life, and now it really helps me deal with life in general,” she says. “I just feel happier.”
What She Does:
Rises and Laughs
Berry laughs for at least 10 minutes after she wakes up, starting with laughter
exercises. She might repeat “ho, ho, ha, ha, ha” to the tune of a song, let out a high-pitched “hee, hee, hee” to mimic a baby’s laugh, or unleash the deep “ho, ho, ho” she imagines a gorilla might make.
It doesn’t have to be “a real laugh to get the benefits,” she says, “but often I’ll fake a laugh and it turns into a real laugh.”
The Payoff: “I feel ready to take on the world.”
Finds the funny throughout the day
- When someone’s laughing, Berry always asks what’s funny and joins in.
- She likes to act silly—dancing with her dog, for example.
- She revisits laughter triggers, such as a friend’s funny laugh stored on her cellphone.
She only watches comedies. “If I’m going to pay money to see a movie, I want to laugh and feel good at the end,” she says.
The Payoff: A day filled with laughs. That way “I don’t take everything so seriously,” Berry says, “making my life more joyful.”
Laughs at Stress
If she’s in a tense situation, whether stuck in traffic, preparing her taxes or about to speak before a large audience, Berry finds something to giggle about.
The Payoff: Sayonara, stress. “Everything loosens up,” Berry says, “and my body gives a big sigh of relief.” Even after the death of her mother, “I forced myself [to do laughter exercises] and it really got me through it,” she says.
- Berry surrounds herself with “laughers” who take a lighter view of life.
- At least once a week, during an extended meal with family and friends, she shares her most recent funny stories.
She leads hour-long group laughter sessions or “laughter yoga” at least twice a week, at which everyone engages in a series of activities, such as laughing together while repeating “ho, ho, ha, ha, ha” in a conga line.
The Payoff: “It really maximizes the effect when you laugh with others,” Berry says.
See if it works for you. Laugh along with Nira Berry in our video below:
Leah Ariniello is a Bethesda-based writer who frequently writes about health issues. To suggest future subjects for this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org.