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November 1, 2005
Inside the Lindsay Perry shoe store in Yorkville, a tall, leggy blond in a black miniskirt maneuvers her way to a seat in a circle of a dozen chatty women. As she sits down, Catherine Lawrence, founder of the Skull and Funny Bones Secret Laughter Society, adjusts her orange and silver gag glasses and calls the meeting to order. The first order of business: each woman must remove one shoe and activate her shoe phone with a belly laugh. A sudden eruption of laughter almost shakes the room. With their leather pumps still at their ears, the women continue giggling as they steal a line from the 1970s show Get Smart and shout: "Sorry about that, Chief!
The Skull and Funny Bones club is one of the many ways Lawrence advocates the therapeutic benefits of laughter. According to Dr. William Fry, a psychiatrist from the Stanford Medical School, laughing does more than enhance your mood-it improves the immune system by increasing the number of white blood cells while providing a healthy cardiovascular work out. Lawrence is Chief Laugh Officer of her Toronto-based company, Survival of the Funniest. She teaches people how to use laughter and humour to de-stress and see the positive in every facet of their lives.
After eight years as a corporate lawyer for John Labatt Limited and Labatt Ontario Breweries in London, Ontario, Lawrence now performs stand-up comedy and gives laughter workshops for a range of corporate clients and volunteer organizations. When working with groups from companies such as Rogers Communications Inc., Lawrence draws on her stand-up experience and uses improvisational games to build team rapport and help people focus on putting a positive spin on negative boardroom scenarios. "I love talking about the benefits of consciously implementing the power of laughter and humour," Lawrence says with a smile. "I tell them it's a jungle out there; dog eat dog. You need to use the power of laughter. Find it. Use it as a management tool to eliminate stress. Use it as a way to think of new creative solutions or a new business strategy." With a sudden pause, her smile fades. Lawrence furrows her brow. "There is a seriousness epidemic in our country. People aren't laughing enough and it's affecting their relationships and their work atmosphere," she says.
After the birth of her third child in 1993, Lawrence noticed that there was a lack of laughter in her own life. That's when she set off on a 17-day excursion to Bhutan. As a mother and a lawyer, Lawrence says her life was chaotic. As she and her husband tried to juggle work and family, Lawrence knew a change of career was due. Having always been interested in Tibetan Buddhism, going to Bhutan gave her the opportunity to slow down and reexamine her life.
In her home office, the legal files are packed away and Lawrence is now surrounded by I Love Lucy posters and wacky toys. "Your best ideas, sometimes your greatest moments, come when you're in that gorgeous place of no thinking, no mind, no thoughts," she says, leaning across her desk. "And that was Bhutan. That wasn't cutting someone's meat. That wasn't driving to Beavers and Brownies and soccer and baseball. We have this great life in Canada, but I observed in Bhutan some magical, fabulous sense of happiness that I think is missing for a lot of people in our great successful lives."
Once she returned from Bhutan, Lawrence switched gears and began to educate herself, studying the available research on the health benefits of laughter. In January 2001, she underwent training to open her own laughter club at the World Laughter Tour in San Diego, California and became a Certified Laughter Leader.
Since then, Survival of the Funniest's focus has gone beyond the boardroom. Giving back to the community has always been one of Lawrence's priorities. In fact, a charity show was one of her earliest gigs. In 1997, a Toronto law firm asked Lawrence to do a comedy routine at the end of its wellness week. At the time, Lawrence was on the board of Variety Village and instead of accepting payment, she asked that the money be donated to Variety Village. More recently, Lawrence strapped on a set of plastic buttocks and performed a short skit for Bottoms Up, a fundraiser for the Colorectal Cancer Screening Initiative Foundation (CCSIF). "It's a very serious subject, cololrectal cancer. So we try to have a sense of humour about it," says Deborah Cotton, executive director of CCSIF. "I've worked with a lot of entertainers over the years, from major stars to not-so major stars and she's a complete pro." Cotton was so impressed that she plans to call upon Lawrence's extensive talents for Bottoms Up 2006. "We're thinking of doing an auction -and I hear she's a trained auctioneer," Cotton winks.
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