Down the hall from quiet card games and serious meetings, one room at the Bain Center in Columbia is a riot of laughter. Last week, 10 people at the senior center laughed while they high-fived one another. They giggled and pointed at each other like they knew a secret. They howled while pretending to talk on a cell phone.
The Another Way to See It Laughter Club, which meets each Monday, seeks to improve people's physical and mental well-being by teaching them to laugh more easily and more often.
"Now," said Heather Wandell, who was leading the unusual exercises, "we're going to take the [imaginary] Visa bill out of the envelope and point and laugh at it like 'I'm not really going to pay this.'"
The participants circled around, seeking each other out and bellowing, guffawing and cackling enthusiastically. They ended each activity with a rousing cheer - accompanied by clapping - that went "ho ho ha ha ha, yea."
"Laughter is good for us," said Inge Hyder of Columbia. "It helps your health, it helps your outlook on life. ... It's fun to do these crazy things, and why not?"
Wandell, who created her own business out of leading laughter activities, started the Bain Center club a year ago. The group doesn't use jokes because they can be subject to different tastes and possibly offend. Members just practice the laughter itself.
"It is kind of a forced laughter at first," Wandell said, "But like anything, with practice, it started to become second nature to us. You become more aware of really it being a real laugh."
Plus she said, when you practice laughing in a group, "you can catch on to somebody, and it's a release for them. It just brings out real laughter."
Wandell is one of more than 2,000 laughter leaders - including 14 in Maryland - certified by the World Laughter Tour, which seeks to promote laughter workshops and clubs across the United States.
That organization got started when Steve Wilson, a proponent of therapeutic laughter, was on a 1998 tour of India and became inspired by a laughter club in Mumbai.
He started a U.S. lecture tour about how to practice laughter, which evolved into a nonprofit organization that today acts as a clearinghouse on the topic for people around the world.
Proponents of therapeutic laughter believe that sustained laughter - even when it is forced - reduces blood pressure, boosts the immune system, decreases stress, releases endorphins that ease pain and gives the heart a workout.
One 2005 study at the University of Maryland School of Medicine showed volunteers a humorous movie and a stressful one and discovered that laughter seemed to cause the lining of blood vessels to dilate, increasing blood flow.
"We don't recommend that you laugh and not exercise, but we do recommend that you try to laugh on a regular basis," said Michael Miller, an associate professor, cardiologist and leader of the study, in a statement at the time. "Thirty minutes of exercise three times a week and 15 minutes of laughter on a daily basis is probably good for the vascular system."
Wandell sees spiritual benefits as well.
"People become open to new possibilities," she said. "It opens our thinking to allow us to become less rigid."
She put together her first talk about laughter, using information she received from the World Laughter Tour, while she was a program director for Winter Growth adult day care.
"I was just really blown away by the reactions I saw from it," Wandell said. More workshops at Winter Growth led to larger seminars until, two years ago, Wandell started Another Way to See It to focus on providing laughter leadership.
Laughter exercises and clubs are "not for everybody," she said. "It takes a lot of nerve to do it, and some people aren't in that place. They don't allow themselves to be silly."
But, she said, those who do can get hooked.
"People will say things like, 'I really feel connected to all the people in the room now,' and that's huge, because it matters that we're connected to others."
Some of that connecting happens at the start of the laughter club meetings, when people talk about their experiences with laughter during the week.
Last week, a story about a misplaced toaster was a crowd-pleaser. Another participant recounted how he laughed energetically at a guest from another country until she laughed too.
"I do enjoy the exercises, but also the sharing that we do," said Hyder, 77. "We do a lot of sharing about what we have noticed during the week that was laughter and joy. That's quite touching sometimes."
Hyder said she has felt the benefits of laughter when she has used it to combat twinges of pain.
"Also, it's good for your muscle strength," she said. "I try to laugh for that too, because I need that."
Ray and Rose Powell of Columbia found the laughter club when they were looking for post-retirement activities to do together.
The camaraderie was a big part of what brought them back, said Ray, 64. "The people that come every Monday, they're really nice people. ... We share stories before we start the exercises, and it makes us really sit back and see exactly what is funny in our lives rather than what is not."
He added: "It gets me going for the whole week. ... We come out of there [thinking], 'Wow, what are we going to do today?' It's upbeat."
The Another Way to See It Laughter Club meets at 9 a.m. Mondays at the Bain Center, 5470 Ruth Keeton Way, Columbia. Attendees are asked to pay $2 at the door. Information: www.anotherwaytoseeit.com.