Norma Copes

Host Norma Copes cracks up during an Elgin Hysterical Society meeting at Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin. (Andrew A. Nelles/For the Chicago Tribune)

Arms bent as if she were clutching the reins of an imaginary horse, Nydia Ramirez galloped around the room, letting loose a hearty laugh.

Minutes later, she was buzzing like a bee, then faking a casino jackpot win. The elementary school teacher says she was "born to laugh," and now meets weekly in Elgin with others who share her passion.

"This is part of my life," she said. "I laugh at everything and sometimes at everybody."

She and other members of the Elgin Hysterical Society, one of more than a dozen such groups in the Chicago area, meet to do nothing more than laugh. They don't tell jokes. They don't watch funny movies. There are no standup comics among them. They just … laugh.

Len Lempa, a social worker at Provena St. Joseph Hospital, started the club in January with the help of Norma Copes, adult services librarian at Gail Borden Public Library. Both are certified group leaders for the club that typically draws about a dozen people each week to the library.

Laughter, Lempa said, helps with pain management by increasing endorphins, and it helps relieve stress.

"If you laugh on a regular basis, your body actually, I think, becomes inhospitable to illness or stress," he said. "It's a bad host."

Roberta Gold, recreation therapist and creator of the Laughter for the Health of It program, offers a more detailed explanation: People anticipating laughter see their heart rate rise, then fall to lower than where it started. Hearty laughter, she said, can involve the entire body and exercise the respiratory muscles and relax the skeletal muscles.

When the body is more relaxed, people breathe more deeply, which benefits their circulatory system, she said.  Laughter also can boost the immune system and reduce the anxiety and nausea people may feel when they're stressed.

"If you're always pounding it with negativity there's definitely psychosomatic illnesses that make your body unhealthy," Gold said. "People that are negative all the time and complaining … tend to have more illnesses than people that look at the sunny side of things, than people who look for the good things and laugh and enjoy themselves."

Lempa advises newbies to the group to fake laughing when they aren't feeling it. Fake laughter, he said, has the same physical benefits as the real thing.

Besides, he said, "Slowly but surely, the chances are it might become real."

The group starts with warmups of slow and deliberate inhaling and exhaling, and at a recent Thursday meeting, giggles started even before the laughter officially began. They try a variety of laughs, such as by rowing, where they mime rowing a boat while laughing.

"Sometimes we lose control fast here," Lempa said with a grin.

Not everyone in the hysterical society came giggling to the group. Jane Craig was skeptical.

"I thought, 'What kind of losers am I going to be with tonight?'" she said.

She joined because she started feeling depressed this year as winter dragged on, and to her delight found the group to be uplifting.

Julie Gum stumbled into her first laughter club meeting earlier this year after seeing a sign in the library. She had lost her job and other things in her life also were going wrong, she said.

"I walked in the first time and I said I'm not going to participate. I'm going to watch all night and within seconds I was up there," she said.