Human beings love to laugh, and the average adult laughs 17 times a day. Humans love to laugh so much that there are actually industries built around laughter. Jokes, sitcoms and comedians are all designed to get us laughing, because laughing feels good. For us it seems so natural, but the funny thing is that humans are one of the only species that laughs. Laughter is actually a complex response that involves many of the same skills used in solving problems.
Laughter is a great thing — that’s why we’ve all heard the saying, “Laughter is the best medicine.” There is strong evidence that laughter can actually improve health and help fight disease. In this article, we’ll look at laughter — what it is, what happens in our brains when we laugh, what makes us laugh and how it can make us healthier and happier. You’ll also learn that there’s a tremendous amount that no one understands yet.
What Is Laughter?
First of all, laughter is not the same as humor. Laughter is the physiological response to humor. Laughter consists of two parts — a set of gestures and the production of a sound. When we laugh, the brain pressures us to conduct both those activities simultaneously. When we laugh heartily, changes occur in many parts of the body, even the arm, leg and trunk muscles.
Under certain conditions, our bodies perform what the Encyclopedia Britannica describes as “rhythmic, vocalized, expiratory and involuntary actions” — better known as laughter. Fifteen facial muscles contract and stimulation of the zygomatic major muscle (the main lifting mechanism of your upper lip) occurs. Meanwhile, the respiratory system is upset by the epiglottis half-closing the larynx, so that air intake occurs irregularly, making you gasp. In extreme circumstances, the tear ducts are activated, so that while the mouth is opening and closing and the struggle for oxygen intake continues, the face becomes moist and often red (or purple). The noises that usually accompany this bizarre behavior range from sedate giggles to boisterous guffaws.
Why Do We Laugh?
Philosopher John Morreall believes that the first human laughter may have begun as a gesture of shared relief at the passing of danger. And since the relaxation that results from a bout of laughter inhibits the biological fight-or-flight response, laughter may indicate trust in one’s companions.
Many researchers believe that the purpose of laughter is related to making and strengthening human connections. “Laughter occurs when people are comfortable with one another, when they feel open and free. And the more laughter [there is], the more bonding [occurs] within the group,” says cultural anthropologist Mahadev Apte. This feedback “loop” of bonding-laughter-more bonding, combined with the common desire not to be singled out from the group, may be another reason why laughter is often contagious.
Studies have also found that dominant individuals — the boss, the tribal chief or the family patriarch — use humor more than their subordinates. If you’ve often thought that everyone in the office laughs when the boss laughs, you’re very perceptive. In such cases, Morreall says, controlling the laughter of a group becomes a way of exercising power by controlling the emotional climate of the group. So laughter, like much human behavior, must have evolved to change the behavior of others, Provine says. For example, in an embarrassing or threatening situation, laughter may serve as a conciliatory gesture or as a way to deflect anger. If the threatening person joins the laughter, the risk of confrontation may lessen.
Laughter is triggered when we find something humorous. There are three traditional theories about what we find humorous:
– The incongruity theory suggests that humor arises when logic and familiarity are replaced by things that don’t normally go together. Researcher Thomas Veatch says a joke becomes funny when we expect one outcome and another happens. When a joke begins, our minds and bodies are already anticipating what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end. That anticipation takes the form of logical thought intertwined with emotion and is influenced by our past experiences and our thought processes. When the joke goes in an unexpected direction, our thoughts and emotions suddenly have to switch gears. We now have new emotions, backing up a different line of thought. In other words, we experience two sets of incompatible thoughts and emotions simultaneously. We experience this incongruity between the different parts of the joke as humorous.
– The superiority theory comes into play when we laugh at jokes that focus on someone else’s mistakes, stupidity or misfortune. We feel superior to this person, experience a certain detachment from the situation and so are able to laugh at it.
– The relief theory is the basis for a device movie-makers have used effectively for a long time. In action films or thrillers where tension is high, the director uses comic relief at just the right times. He builds up the tension or suspense as much as possible and then breaks it down slightly with a side comment, enabling the viewer to relieve himself of pent-up emotion, just so the movie can build it up again! Similarly, an actual story or situation creates tension within us. As we try to cope with two sets of emotions and thoughts, we need a release and laughter is the way of cleansing our system of the built-up tension and incongruity. (According to Dr. Lisa Rosenberg, humor, especially dark humor, can help workers cope with stressful situations. “The act of producing humor, of making a joke, gives us a mental break and increases our objectivity in the face of overwhelming stress,” she says.)
Laughter and Health
What may surprise you even more is the fact that researchers estimate that laughing 100 times is equal to 10 minutes on the rowing machine or 15 minutes on an exercise bike. Laughing can be a total body workout! Blood pressure is lowered, and there is an increase in vascular blood flow and in oxygenation of the blood, which further assists healing. Laughter also gives your diaphragm and abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg and back muscles a workout. That’s why you often feel exhausted after a long bout of laughter — you’ve just had an aerobic workout!
The psychological benefits of humor are quite amazing, according to doctors and nurses who are members of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor. People often store negative emotions, such as anger, sadness and fear, rather than expressing them. Laughter provides a way for these emotions to be harmlessly released. Laughter is cathartic. That’s why some people who are upset or stressed out go to a funny movie or a comedy club, so they can laugh the negative emotions away (these negative emotions, when held inside, can cause biochemical changes that can affect our bodies).