Laughter helps us relax and is good for our health. And who would know that better than Jacqueline Domhoff? In 2009, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and soon after discovered laughter yoga, which helped her to not feel sick. Today she heads a non-profit called The Hospital of Happiness.
In laughter therapy, one does not laugh at others, but rather with other. There are no jokes, but rather simulated laughter. For example, you could give a group of people some documents showing negative results, and they should look at them and start to laugh. This way, they reduce stress and worry.
When we laugh, we release neurotransmitters, like endorphins, that lower levels of cortisol and adrenaline, two hormones associated with stress. Cortisol reduces oxygen and weakens the immune system, which leaves us more vulnerable to disease.
When did you find out that you had cancer?
When I was 39. I got sick for choosing a bad love. You don’t get a physical disease overnight. The sickness starts in the mind and eventually gets to the body. I stopped wanting to live, and then I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I considered myself a successful woman. I had gotten to the top level of my career in public relations. But I got sick.
Being a woman of faith [she was a nun until she was 22 years old, but left the convent because she fell in love], what was your reaction?
I didn’t know what to do. The “efficient executive” part of me came out: What do we do? When? How? When I got to my house I cried. I asked myself what I had done wrong. But I never had a bad word for God. I always knew I was going to learn something new. And then a friend told me about a therapy that was going to make me happy and she took me to laughter yoga.
And what did you learn?
Laughter yoga comes from India. It’s an alternative medicine that doesn’t cure cancer, but it does improve your quality of life. It taught me to live, to relax, to laugh about everything. It taught me that happiness is a lifestyle. I will never forget when I met the creator of laughter yoga, Madan Kataria. I wrote him a letter to tell him about my case and he decided to certify me as a teacher of laughter yoga.
If you are practicing laughter yoga routinely, are you always happy?
I am human and there are moments in which I fall, and I believe in the philosophy of crying and laughing. There are days that I cry to clean my soul and I say this to people: allow yourself to cry because it is laughing in reverse; first you clean the soul and then you smile.
What is the Hospital of Happiness?
It is a non-profit that takes happiness and calm to the people. It’s not a conventional hospital [it operates out of an office in Domhoff’s home]. We are the other face of the hospitals because we cure the spiritual, emotional and psychological part. We work with children in extreme poverty and abandoned elderly people.
How did this all start?
It started in a bed at the National Institute of Neoplastic Diseases (INAN). When I would go in for my cancer treatments, I would see sadness in people, in their souls, in the space, and in how rough the doctors’ treatment was. I believe that people didn’t die and don’t die now from sickness, but rather from the anxiety and depression. I thought there should exist a hospital that teaches you to laugh, to feel happy and to work on the mind, to be positive and enrich your spirituality, because for me, one of the pillars of my recovery has been my faith.
Who works at your hospital?
The hospital has interns and volunteers that train people in the practice of laughter yoga. The volunteers come on the weekends to plan our social work because it’s not just about doing laughter yoga and having a little party, but also about bringing necessities, like school supplies donated through our “happiness boxes,” to children living in extreme poverty. One of the volunteers is a doctor that works in the Children’s Hospital. Because one thing is what I say, and another is the scientific opinion.
What are these laughter exercises like?
They are exercises that help us breathe correctly, improve our mood, and channel our fears and anxiety. But the most important thing is that they help our immune systems and help eliminate stress and toxicity from our bodies.
What do you hope for the future?
We want to open a pilot house called the Happiness Oasis. It would be the next step towards the ultimate goal, which is to open a full size hospital. But to build the house, we would need help with construction and the implementation of 10 alternative therapies, like aromatherapy and acupuncture.
What would you like to share with people who have cancer?
I want to tell them that I am a living example that cancer can be overcome. But you need to be healthy in all areas of your life. I didn’t just have cancer once; I have had it twice more and I am still here, and still happy. Within a few weeks I am going to start another round of chemotherapy. I am sure that my hair will start to fall out again, but I have not lost faith or happiness, and I won’t stop thinking positively.