by Melissa Lauber

Loretta LaRoche does not look like a prophet. But the message she preaches at hundreds of seminars around the country and on three PBS specials feels like a godsend to those whose lives are filled with the stresses of daily living.

Almost as if offering a benediction, LaRoche tells her audiences: "Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery. Today is a gift. That's why they call it the present."

But LaRoche is no priest and she offers herself up on no altars of high brow philosophy. Instead, she shares some simple, down-home truths: choose happiness instead of looking for the meaning of life, make your life meaningful, and for crying out loud, if you're going to insist upon conjuring it up, you might as well enjoy your stress.

An adjunct faculty member for the Behavioral Institute of Medicine, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, LaRoche "just kind of fell into" the role of MD or mirth director, eight years ago. Mental health, or "the study of the id by the odd," has always fascinated her.

To the audiences who now flock to see her, she offers several promotional products. One of her favorites is the martyr kit. It's two pieces of Velcro, she explains. One is attached to your forehead, the other to your hand. When stress begins to take its toll, you can slap the two pieces together and strike an instant "woe is me pose" that will alert the world to your suffering.

She's convinced that if it were ever marketed, she'd be a millionaire. The problem, as LaRoche sees it, is that too many people do not recognize that stress can be a positive or negative thing in their lives; that they can choose their response.

"There's a lot of catastrophizing and awfulizing in our society," she said. "Seventy-five percent of our daily conversation is negative. My mission in life is to stop global whining.

"If given the option of being miserable or happy, of course most people would answer, happy. But happiness comes from within," LaRoche said. "It involves loving yourself, feeling good about your decisions, and owning responsibility for your own emotions."

Yet in today's society, happiness always tends to get put aside, she believes. "We like to be mourners and martyrs." Hunching over and imitating the world around her she laments, "maybe when I'm done, I'll have fun." Then straightening up she adds, it's a proven scientific fact, optimists live longer. Pessimists are accurate, but they die sooner. We are all going to suffer. Why practice?"

In her study of humor, LaRoche found that 4-year-olds laugh an average of 400 times a day. "But the time you're an adult, you're lucky if you're cranking out 15," she said.

To combat this, LaRoche often has her audiences put on wide toothy grins and chuckle and guffaw for a full 30 seconds. "It's called the fake it till you make it," method, she explained. Research has shown that how you look and arrange your features can make you feel a certain way. Pretending to feel a certain way can get you there.

However, within the first few seconds, there are always some people in the audience who begin to check their watches. "It's as if that's too long. They don't have the time to enjoy themselves."

But those who do, report finding themselves feeling lighter, sometimes for the first time in a long while.

One of the reasons adults are so willing to postpone happiness is because they've been told "No" often. Denial, and worrying about what the next person might think becomes ingrained. "By the time a child is 3," he's been given 350,000 No's," LaRoche said. "That can make a person internalize stuff and wait for that special occasion to be happy. We must begin to learn to play along the way.

"You have to realize you're the only one who can make you happy. No one else can," said LaRoche. "Everyone of us is a joke, we just don't get it yet."

The holiday season, LaRoche realizes, is a time for especially high stress and unhappiness and she finds this ironic and sad.

"It's become about gifts, but not only giving. "It's about finding the exactly right gift, and the value of the gift..And I could go on and on." Such attitudes, LaRoche feels, sabotage the holidays.

She recommends that as part of the season, everyone "sit down, literally sit down, and envision the true meaning of the holiday. Connect to that. Then, ask yourself if you've lost the meaning."

For LaRoche, Christmas is about the birth of Christ and new beginnings. Hanukkah is about rededication. There are many truths here that we've lost contact with," she said. "The mall and all it offers should be a nice little addendum to the holiday. Nothing more."

When this holiday season is over, LaRoche will begin putting the finishing touches on her third broadcast for public television. The as yet untitled show, sponsored by WGBH in Boston, will air in March.

She's also working on the continual development of her corporation, The Humor Potential, Inc. Her son Eric has recently created a webpage that tells its story.

And amid all that activity, she'll also be dancing with her granddaughter and waking up each morning with the joyful cry "I'm back."

"I don't even pretend I'm Muhammad or Mahatma Ghandi or the pope. I just try to help people make little changes in their lives here and there," LaRoche said. "And some of them write me and tell me they'll never quite feel the same again."

That, like living in the present with a smile, is indeed a gift.

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