Julie Ann Sullivan often wears colorful flowing dresses. Her warm brown eyes are framed by short feathered silver and dark hair and round glasses, giving her the air of a youthful pixie. That's helpful because she often leads laughter workshops where people learn to see life and its difficulties through a lighthearted lens.
On a recent Friday morning, Ms. Sullivan brought her particular brand of joy to the Volunteers of America office in Sharpsburg.
"We're going to take a jar of smile cream and we're going to put it all over our faces. Now let that dry," she said, adding some breathing exercises to help participants relax.
"Remember, that mask is really tight," she said, encouraging people to remove the mask with some imaginary liquid. "Wake up your face. Get on that astringent. As we do this, we have to smile and we have to look at the people around us."
For the next hour, participants try different exercises -- laughing with their eyes closed while conjuring a happy childhood memory or winding up an imaginary laughter key in their stomach and releasing the giggles. One participant, Sharon Janitor of Etna, left the workshop energized, and that was good because she was on her way to clean a five-bedroom house.
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Ms. Sullivan understands workplace culture, having spent 20 years at the local firm of Grossman, Yanak & Ford, where she was a certified public accountant for 15 years. "Laughter workshops remove the office hierarchy," she says. During a session at a McDonald's corporate office outside Philadelphia, "everyone from the receptionist to the general manager was in the room."
At age 62, Ms. Sullivan has embarked on a new line of work with her business called Learning Never Ends. By her own admission, she's a San Fernando Valley girl -- fer sure, fer sure -- who became a California hippie who turned into an accountant who evolved into a "certified laughter leader."
To qualify for that last title, Ms. Sullivan attended seminars led by Steve Wilson, a former psychologist from Columbus, Ohio, who is cheerman of the World Laughter Tour, which he cofounded with Karyn Buxman, a nurse. Mr. Wilson traveled to India in 1998 to meet Madan Kataria, a physician known as the Guru of Giggling. In 1995, Dr. Kataria combined self-generated laughter with yogic breathing to create laughter yoga. This blend of laughter and breathing increases oxygen in the body and, some say, makes people happier.
Ms. Sullivan's goal is to show people how they can create their own true, mirthful laughter, "so they can call upon it from within, when they need it. And we all need it. It is phenomenal to teach people to create their own true, mirthful laughter," she said. "You would not believe how much joy playing a kazoo brings people."
There are, she added, "lots of laughter clubs in cancer centers and pain clinics." Last year, she attended a workshop at a convention in Chicago of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, a mix of people in health care, academia, scientific researchers and psychologists.
Tough to laugh
Speaking about laughter requires nerve plus planning and practice. It's a skill Ms. Sullivan mastered during the 1970s after joining a large active Toastmasters Club back in sunny San Diego.
"I had no fear whatsoever about speaking to a group of people," she said.
But her early childhood in California had its share of storm clouds. At age 7, she found her strong, independent mother weeping on their Encino home's back stoop.
Soon, "there were a lot of people in my house. They were weeping" because her father had perished in an airplane collision. "We flew to New York and sat shiva for seven days," a customary period of mourning for Jews. "There were a lot of stories to tell about my dad because he was a wild guy," she said.
Her formal education includes a bachelor's degree in psychology from California State University that she earned in 1973 and an MBA in accounting from National University in California in 1981. Seven years of living in the Eastern Sierras in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., made her realize that she missed four seasons and disliked the Southern California lifestyle. She moved to Pittsburgh in 1989 after her husband, who grew up in Pleasant Hills, landed a job transfer here.
Twenty years passed and in 2009, she was divorced. That meant a move from a 5,000- square-foot home in Peters to a 900-square-foot apartment in Mt. Lebanon. Her only child, Sean Michael Sullivan, left for college. For two days, she lay in a closet and cried. Laughter, she insists, saved her.
"You don't need a big epiphany to change your life. You only need to walk outside and see that a new flower has bloomed," she said.
While she tailors each workshop to a client's needs, she readily admits that not everyone who attends reacts favorably. Nearly every group includes people who resist participating or don't pay attention.
"Body language is rich with information," Ms. Sullivan said. "You just don't have any idea what's going on in people. Maybe their cat died that morning."
She believes that less than enthusiastic participants benefit from secondhand laughter, which is way better for you than secondhand smoke. She has started laughter clubs in Mt. Lebanon and Peters. She's also organizing a laughter club in Sharpsburg. In a workshop she leads called "Good Hearted Living," participants are asked to write a list of what they are grateful for.
"I rarely get people who write 'I'm alive,' " she said.
A laughter workshop she held last summer at Sunnyhill, a Unitarian Universalist church in Mt. Lebanon, attracted two men, 11 women and one teenage boy. Among the exercises were speaking in gibberish and walking over imaginary fires.
Laughing with Buddha
When Ms. Sullivan is stuck in traffic, she rubs the belly of a Buddha that is attached to the dashboard of her green Suburu. Since 2006, her car has carried a license plate that reads HAP-101. You might think it stands for Happiness 101 but it actually pays tribute to a dear departed relative.
"I had an uncle whom everyone in my family called Uncle Happy. He loved to tell jokes and used to spend some part of every summer in the Catskills at open mic night," she said.
At family gatherings, if her uncle told a joke and someone did not listen, he would start all over again. "As he aged and the whole family would gather for his birthdays, you can imagine the dirty looks someone would get when they interrupted for the third time," she said.
When he died at age 101, he left her some money.
"I used that money to buy a new car, which was much needed, and decided to get the license plate in memory of him. I had no idea at the time I would become a certified laughter leader. I guess the universe did."
Marylynne Pitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1648. First Published March 13, 2013 4:00 AM