The news is grim these days, so we all could use a good laugh -- even a fake one, says a psychologist who claims that a minute of forced laughter can chase away the blues.

"Forced laughter is a powerful, readily available and cost-free way for many adults to regularly boost their mood and psychological well-being," said Charles Schaefer, professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J.

Schaefer also found that self-imposed smiling is a mood enhancer. But howling like a wolf for a minute didn't do anything -- except make a racket, Schaefer and his research colleagues reported in two separate studies in Psychological Reports.

His findings come from two experiments he conducted on a total of 39 college students and Teaneck residents. While additional studies with larger samples are needed to bolster his conclusions, Schaefer said these initial results are important enough to warrant attention. (Your Unconventional Wiz is happy to oblige -- and besides, I can't help smiling at the thought of a roomful of twentysomethings solemnly trying to make themselves grin, laugh and howl.)

Schaefer said he uncovered the salubrious effect of artificial laughter in a study of 17 Fairleigh Dickinson students. He first asked them questions that measured their mood. Then he directed them to laugh heartily for a minute, and tested them again. On average, test subjects reported feeling significantly better after 60 seconds of faux merriment.

Wait a minute, professor. The Wiz can believe that a hearty laugh is good for the soul and spirit, but why would phony laughter work?

Because your body doesn't know it's fake, even though your brain might, Schaefer said. "Once the brain signals the body to laugh, the body doesn't care why. It's going to release endorphins, it's going to relieve stress as a natural physiological response to the physical act of laughing."

Intrigued, Schaefer designed a second study to compare the effects of forced laughter with continuous smiling or howling. Why howling? Because, he said, it's another type of "energetic vocalization, and there was all that research on the efficacy of primal scream therapy a while ago."

This time, he directed 22 study participants to smile broadly for 60 seconds, laugh heartily for 60 seconds and howl for 60 seconds. Laughing and smiling both helped boost their spirits, but howling didn't, he found. Forced laughter was the best medicine. "One minute of forced laughing showed a significantly greater improvement than one minute of smiling," Schaefer said.

Another question: How did test subjects know exactly what to do -- for example, how did he make sure they let out a howl and not, say, a scream or a shriek?

"My research assistant and I would demonstrate," Schaefer said. "We stood before them and laughed hysterically and then howled. I instructed them to imagine a wolf howling at the moon. When they saw a senior professor howling, it took away some of their natural self-consciousness."

No doubt. One more question, though: How does he know that the effect applies to everyone, and not just a few dozen Fairleigh Dickinson students who were directed to laugh, smile and howl on cue by their professor?

Lighten up, Schaefer said.

"My research is suggestive, not conclusive," he said. "But I don't see why it would not be generally true. I believe laughing does at least four things for you. It energizes you. It cheers you up. It relaxes you. It rejuvenates you. For adults, you feel younger. It's like that Chinese proverb: 'Every laugh makes you 10 years younger.' You should try it."

In these tense times, why not? Hahahahahahaha. . . .

Property Value

Want your kids to do better in school? Buy a house.

"Homeownership itself is good for children," said Donald R. Haurin, professor of economics at Ohio State University.

Haurin found that children are more likely to flourish academically if their parents own their home than if they rent, even after controlling for factors such as income and the parents' formal education.

Overall, he found that children living in parent-owned homes scored up to 9 percent better on math achievement tests and up to 7 percent better on reading achievement tests than children living in rental units, and had fewer behavioral problems.

Haurin and his colleagues analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which includes 1,026 children who were 5 to 8 years old in 1988. As part of the study, their parents were interviewed every two years from 1988 through 1994.

Haurin speculates that home ownership may benefit children because the environment -- including such things as safety, maintenance and the availability of educational materials -- is better on average in houses and condos owned by the residents than in rental units. In addition, the greater stability of homeowners is good for children's development. The study appeared in the current issue of the journal Real Estate Economics.

Fox Hawks

Fox News and NBC are the networks of choice for those who describe themselves as hawkish on the war in Iraq, while CBS and ABC are where more doves are roosting, according to a recent survey of likely voters by pollster John Zogby.

Overall, the poll found that two out of three voters said they supported the war. Eighty-one percent of viewers who primarily got their news from Fox said they backed the war, compared to 71 percent of NBC's audience, followed by CNN (65 percent), MSNBC (64 percent), ABC (62 percent) and CBS (60 percent).

A total of 1,011 self-described likely voters were interviewed this past Monday. Margin of error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.