Joyce Anisman-Saltman has always been a naturally funny person. But even though she is an associate professor of special education at Southern Connecticut University in New Haven, she didn't start teaching classes about laughter until eight years ago.
"I was between husbands, and I was doing standup comedy at a local restaurant. It got such a good reception that I was asked to speak at the local library about how therapeutic it is to laugh."She did "frantic research" on Norman Cousins and innumerable other sources. The lecture was covered by three of Connecticut's largest newspapers.
"Overnight I became this instant star. I started doing between five and 10 lectures a week in hospitals, corporations and other places, and I got this following. I had one person who had heard me for the 11th time, and when I asked her about it, she said it was cheaper than therapy."
Finally, Anisman-Saltman's university asked her to organize an institute to teach these concepts to educators in an academic setting. "It was like having a baby - it took nine months to prepare." Now she teaches 200 teachers in a concentrated 38-hour week - and she invites the very best keynote speakers from around the country to take part.
That means there is nothing dull in it - "it is all dessert. One person who took it said it was like having chocolate cake, cheese cake and a hot fudge sundae all at once."
She also does an interdisciplinary course called "Enhancement of Learning Through Humor" in which she talks about the physiological benefits of laughter, then shows how each academic discipline can be enriched with humor. She spends time on humor and disabilities, as well as humor and the media.
"I'm a great fan of `Sesame Street.' I would rather watch `Sesame Street' if I was home alone than a game show."
When she began doing all this, she could find only two articles in medical journals about the therapeutic effects of laughter - "Now there are literally hundreds." Cousins, the former editor of Saturday Review, remains her favorite source. "He did more to legitimize the mind-body connection than anyone else in the country."
When Cousins suffered from a progressive spinal disorder, he devised his own therapy by watching old films of the Marx Brothers and "Candid Camera." When he recovered, he wrote the popular book "Anatomy of an Illness," which got the attention of the medical community. Cousins said that endorphins secreted in the brain to relieve pain are stimulated by laughter.
"The man was my hero," Anisman-Saltman says. She advises everyone to get a VCR to use for funny tapes to provide instant relief from life's pressures. Many people use audio tapes she has made to laugh as they are going into surgery.
The comedians she enjoys most are those who tell stories based on real life. "I would rather watch David Brenner, Buddy Hackett or Bill Cosby tell stories than listen to Henny Youngman tell one-liners. I'm 48, and so I was pretty young, but my favorite humorist was Sam Levinson. But Garrison Keillor is perfect. So are Elaine Boosler and Paula Poundstone, who tell stories about dating that there is not a female alive who does not understand them."
But she also likes Johnny Carson and Jay Leno, "who react to something real that people relate to. What I don't like is line-punch line, line-punch line."
Besides laughter, Anisman-Saltman believes in a positive approach to life. She starts every day "with something UP. I don't get out of bed until I call one of my closest friends." She suggests "making a list of 20 things you like to do, and then commit yourself to doing at least 10 of them every day. If you do what you enjoy doing first, you can use the extra energy to do the stuff that drives you down."
She advises wearing bright colors. "People who wear beiges are colorless and drab. When you feel good about how you look, you feel better about life. It also translates to the way people respond to you."
Finally, she says, "You should surround yourself with positive people so you can bask in the aura."
Anisman-Saltman is working on a doctorate at Columbia University, where her dissertation is titled, "The Effect of Humor in Adult Education." When that's completed, she would like to do a book inspired by her 88-year-old mother, who still writes her "hysterically funny letters." It will be called "Dearest Last Born."
But she will never stop teaching. She only did standup comedy for six months because "it lacked substance for me. People laughed and felt better temporarily, but when they left they had nothing to hold onto. In my lectures I can give meaning to it. Humor helps us to step back and put our problems in perspective. I give permission for people to have fun."