A laughing matter

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Anthropology / Evolution / Myths / Psychology

When was the last time you laughed out loud? Can you remember what set you off? It turns out laughing is more complex than it might appear: we laugh for many different reasons. And some of them aren’t that funny.

Why exactly do we laugh? Image credit Marc Kjerland via Flickr

Why exactly do we laugh? Image credit Marc Kjerland via Flickr

Is laughter the best medicine?

Laughter has been claimed to be good for just about everything, from boosting the immune system, to decreasing stress and lowering blood pressure. There’s some evidence laughter protects against heart disease and laughing has been shown to improve short-term memory in older adults. A 15-year study of more than 53,000 people in Norway found both men and women with a strong sense of humour lived longer. Laughter definitely helps us cope with pain – laughter releases endorphins, which increases our pain threshold. That’s why ‘clown doctors’ are popular visitors for kids in hospital.

It may not cure any diseases, but most of us would agree a decent belly laugh, or even a quiet chuckle, can make us feel good. It’s not surprising laughter clubs and laughter yoga are popular. Gelotologists – researchers who study laughter – have long explored both the health benefits and the origins of laughter. Not only humans laugh: primates do it too. But why, and what exactly makes us laugh?

Know any good jokes?

Let’s answer the what first. An obvious response to the question of what makes people laugh is: ‘a good joke’. So back in 2001, one well-known researcher set out to find the world’s funniest joke. Richard Wiseman asked people to submit their favourite joke (his team collected 40,000 of them) and over a million people rated the jokes for funniness. You can find the winning joke and runner-up on the Laughlab website. Most of the funniest jokes were simply stories about unexpected things happening. We’re expecting one resolution to a situation but the punch line delivers a funny and completely different ending. The surprise makes us laugh: it’s called the incongruity theory of laughter.

But research has shown often our laughter isn’t to do with anything even vaguely funny. One theory suggests laughing is about feeling superior. The person who has just slipped over and hurt themselves looks stupid. That makes us feel good (and superior) because unlike that person, we don’t look stupid. And so we laugh.

Have you ever laughed at a completely inappropriate time or place? A funeral perhaps? This sort of laughter is explained by the relief theory: we laugh to cope with stressful situations. Laughter releases nervous energy and helps us to feel better. Comic relief is a powerful thing. But the fact it’s normal to laugh at inopportune times still doesn’t explain why we’ve evolved to laugh.

It’s a social thing

Have you noticed that laughter is contagious? That’s why sitcoms always play the sound of people laughing at all the right moments. You are thirty times more likely to laugh if you’re with other people than if you’re alone. And it’s probably this social aspect that best explains why we laugh in the first place.

What we find funny is such a personal thing – but laughing at a joke signals we share beliefs or preferences with the joke teller. People are much more likely to disclose personal information after laughing with someone. Laughter promotes new relationships and laughing together with someone is a way to signal to each other and to other people ‘we have a bond’. Of course laughter can also be a sign of sexual interest between two people. How many online dating profiles talk about having and wanting a sense of humour?

You are laughing to show people that you understand them, that you agree with them, that you’re part of the same group as them. You’re laughing to show that you like them. Professor Sophie Scott

Research suggests we are highly tuned into the social signals contained in laughter. Our brains can tell the difference between genuine and forced, or polite laughter. And our brain responses suggest we attempt to understand how non-genuine laughers are feeling and why they might be laughing.

Fascinating research published earlier this year showed that we can work out if two people are friends or strangers simply by their laughter. Researchers recorded the laughter of pairs of American college students. In some cases the two students were good friends and in others, they had only just met. The researchers played these laughter recordings to almost 1000 listeners from 24 countries across five continents. All of the listeners were good at picking which laughter belonged to friends or strangers. It didn’t matter which culture they were from and it made no difference whether the listener spoke English. The sound of friends laughing is simply different.

Maybe laughter, not love, is the universal language.

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  1. Love a hearty laugh. I remember in my high school years literally rolling on the corridor in fits of laughter with my friends. I don’t even think we were laughing at anything in particular. My laughter antics are more modest these days…a giggle, a burst of laughter, but no rolling. I haven’t been caught rolling around the office corridors in fits of laughter…yet 🙂

  2. Pingback: It’s no joke that laughing is good for you! | Bird is the Word

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