Could laughter really be the best medicine for ever-serious Germans? A major meeting on the medical benefits of humor, opening today in Essen, will take up the issue.
Are Germans really a nation of scowling sourpusses?
Germans are not known for being giggly, bubbly or light-hearted. Nor are they a riot, a hoot, a scream, or barrel of laughs. They're not even especially witty.
So why are they hosting a humor conference?
Maybe they just need it most. If the international stereotype is true, Germany is a country full of dour sourpusses who tend toward excessive punctuality -- and there is even some data to back it up.
Germans laughed three times less in the 1990s than they did in the 1950s -- right after the World War II. Depression rates have increased tenfold.
The head of Humor Care, a group that promotes laughter's threapeutic benefits, Dr. Michael Titze, explained that it's not a chemical imbalance that keeps Germans from laughing as much as they used to. Rather, an extreme fear of what the future holds, keeps them crabby.
Postmodern angst to blame
Clapping helped Germans crack a smile on World Laughter Day, May 6, 2001
Economic downturns and even fear of natural catastrophes weigh on the Teutonic psyche, Titze told DW-World.
"Actual post-modern life is getting more and more serious," Titze said. "People feel overwhelmed by the choices they have in how to determine their lives, and it’s more than some people can handle."
Luckily, the German medical profession -- which increasingly recognizes that laughter can help promote good health -- is getting into the act. At the 3rd German Humor Conference, which started Friday in the western German city of Essen, medical professionals will get down to clarifying the medical benefits of laughter and the therapies that promote them.
But more important even than research, are the ever expanding practical opportunities for Germans looking for a good guffaw.
'Fake it till you make it'
From laughter clubs, where people get together to laugh for no reason, to traditional comedy clubs to "laugh yoga," there are growing opportunities to buck the national trend and smile, smile, smile.
HoHo-HaHa is a Cologne-based group that promotes so-called "laugh yoga," a discipline that trains people to combine laughter with yoga breathing exercises.
"When people begin the two-day seminars we offer, they can't just let go with 10 minutes of hearty laughing for no particular reason," HoHo-HaHa's Brigitte Abels told DW-WORLD. But after completing a two day seminar, participants aim to bust a gut for a full half hour.
"It feels silly and strange at the beginning," Abels said. "But we say: ‘Fake it till you make it.’"
There's plenty to laugh about in Germany
Research shows that after 10 minutes of forced laughter, the brain can no longer differentiate between a real or artificial giggle fit and lets loose with all the positive side-effects of authentic laughter, such as bringing down blood pressure, improving circulation, and lowering stress, Abels said.
Smiling at junkies
Abels said her laugh yoga practice has also brought more immediate benefits.
"I used to be disturbed by some junkies and beggars who stayed in the park near where I lived," Abels said. Once she became a laugh yogi, though, she learned to look at them and smile -- and found that they smiled back. She hasn’t been bothered by them since.
But Humor Care's Titze said Germans don’t need to start laugh yoga to cheer up, they just need to stop planning all the details of their lives -- a habit often thought to be engraved in the German psyche.
Even German Finance Minister Hans Eichel can manage a good laugh
According to Titze, the more people plan out the future, the less likely they are to laugh about it.
"In countries where people cannot plan because they don’t know what they will eat tomorrow, there is a measurably higher rate of happiness," said Titze, some of whose patients suffer from gelotophobia -- the fear of being laughed at.
Those who find laugh-yoga too esoteric may feel more comfortable ducking into a comedy club and for a dose of standup schtick. Despite the country's reputation as being humorless, Germany's cities are home to hundreds of comedy clubs, and the numbers are rising, said Peter Woller, of the Cologne Comedy Academy.
Woller hopes his business, which trains standup comics and helps them book venues, will ensure there are enough good comedians to keep the growing crowds rolling in the aisles.
"There are a lot of venues for comedians in Germany," Woller told DW-WORLD. "I think the quality of German comedy is often underrated."
Harald Schmidt, Germany's best-known comedian
Regardless of whether they go to turn on funny television programs, go to comedy clubs or enroll in laugh yoga, many people "are turning to comedy for a stimulus to help them feel happier," Titze said.
Since she started with laugh yoga, Abels said she’s enjoyed life more and worried less."Life would be a lot easier if people laughed more," she said.