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Sister Lee has them rolling in the pews with laughter therapy

Korean nun's therapy eases stress and raises a chuckle
Sister Lee has them rolling in the pews with laughter therapy
Sister Lee speaks during a lecture last month on laughter therapy
Published: January 02, 2013 07:30 AM GMT
Updated: January 02, 2013 06:57 PM GMT

It’s not every day that nuns in Korea employ humor and laughter – particularly at their own expense – to illustrate a spiritual lesson.

But Sister Agatha Lee Mi-suk, 45, did just that during a lecture on the power of laughter, for which she donned a butterfly-shaped hair band and punctuated her lecture with wild laughter and unrestrained dancing.

“If you laugh only when you are happy, you will only have a few opportunities to laugh during your lifetime,” said Sr Lee following her lecture at Geumjeong Church in Gunpo on December 30.

While you are laughing, you will become happy,” added the nun, who goes by the affectionate nickname of Winnie the Pooh.

Sr Lee, of the Congregation of the Religious Missionaries of St Dominic, spoke to about 150 participants in an address that emphasized the need for laughter to relieve stress, which she said has become a chronic problem in the country.

According to a study by Statistics Korea released in December, 69.2 percent of South Koreans aged 13 or older experience stress in their daily lives, mostly from school or work.

In a bid to reverse this trend, Sr Lee began lecturing on laughter therapy in 2007. Since that time she has spread her message of the healing aspects of laughter to about 10,000 people each year.

“Laughter is a sort of exercise,” she said, adding that when you try to laugh continuously, “you can have the desired effect. And the effect will increase more when you laugh together with other people.”

For one participant, the nun’s unorthodox antics painted a much more human portrait of clerics and Religious.

“It was really strange that a Catholic nun who is supposed to be solemn was jumping and dancing like a tomboy,” said John Song Jong-hyun, 63, who attended the lecture.

Other participants said they came to the lecture to overcome despair over unsatisfying and stressful work environments and to ease the burden of various social or interpersonal problems.

“When you are upset, you can express it, which is okay,” said Sr Lee. “But when you get angry, it becomes a problem. At that moment, if you choose laughter instead of anger you can open the door to happiness.”

According to psychiatrist Chung Won-yong, laughter “enhances your intake of oxygen and increases endorphins, so that your immune system is improved and your pain can be eased by causing the body to produce natural painkillers.”

Chung said that one in six South Koreans experience some form of mental illness, such as depression, anxiety or various compulsive disorders – a situation he attributes to an increasingly competitive employment sector and growing social polarization.

“Negative thoughts can impact your body by bringing more stress into your system,” he said, recommending people take a positive view of life to “see your circumstances brightly.”

Sr Lee recalled that several years ago she had met a woman who suffered a tragic automobile accident and was forced to wear a urinary bag as a result of her injuries.

The woman had decided to respond not with bitterness but with good humor and laughter to overcome the tragedy.

“That is the power of positive thought,” Sr Lee said, who advocates at least 15 seconds of loud laughter every morning.

Once upon a time, Sr Lee dreamed of being a comedian. She says now that her vocation as a Religious allows her to couple that dream with devoted service to helping people overcome tragic circumstances.

“I want to help people heal their agony with laughter,” she said.

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