A big mystery: Why do we laugh?
Laughter is part of the universal human vocabulary. All members of the human species understand it. Unlike English or French or Swahili, we don’t have to learn to speak it. We’re born with the capacity to laugh.
One of the remarkable things about laughter is that it occurs unconsciously. You don’t decide to do it. While we can consciously inhibit it, we don’t consciously produce laughter. That’s why it’s very hard to laugh on command or to fake laughter. (Don’t take my word for it: Ask a friend to laugh on the spot.)
Laughter provides powerful, uncensored insights into our unconscious. It simply bubbles up from within us in certain situations.
Very little is known about the specific brain mechanisms responsible for laughter. But we do know that laughter is triggered by many sensations and thoughts, and that it activates many parts of the body.
When we laugh, we alter our facial expressions and make sounds. During exuberant laughter, the muscles of the arms, legs and trunk are involved. Laughter also requires modification in our pattern of breathing.
We also know that laughter is a message that we send to other people. We know this because we rarely laugh when we are alone (we laugh to ourselves even less than we talk to ourselves).
Laughter is social and contagious. We laugh at the sound of laughter itself. That’s why the Tickle Me Elmo doll is such a success — it makes us laugh and smile.
The first laughter appears at about 3.5 to 4 months of age, long before we’re able to speak. Laughter, like crying, is a way for a preverbal infant to interact with the mother and other caregivers.
Contrary to folk wisdom, most laughter is not about humor; it is about relationships between people. To find out when and why people laugh, I and several undergraduate research assistants went to local malls and city sidewalks and recorded what happened just before people laughed. Over a 10-year period, we studied over 2,000 cases of naturally occurring laughter.
We found that most laughter does not follow jokes. People laugh after a variety of statements such as “Hey John, where ya been?” “Here comes Mary,” “How did you do on the test?” and “Do you have a rubber band?”. These certainly aren’t jokes.
Why Do We Laugh?
Laughter clearly serves a social function. It is a way for us to signal to another person that we wish to connect with them. In fact, in a study of thousands of examples of laughter, the speakers in a conversation were found to be 46 percent more likely to laugh than the listeners.
We’re also 30 times more likely to laugh in a group. Young children between the ages of 2.5 and 4 were found to be eight times more likely to laugh at a cartoon when they watched it with another child even though they were just as likely to report that the cartoon was funny whether alone or not.
Evolutionarily speaking, this signal of connection likely played an important role in survival. Upon meeting a stranger, we want to know: What are your intentions with me? And who else are you aligned with?
In a study that spanned 24 different societies and included 966 participants, scientists played short sound bites of pairs of people laughing together. In some cases, the pair were close friends, in others, the pair were strangers.
Participants in the study were asked to listen to the simultaneous laughter and determine the level of friendship shared by the laughers. Using only the sound of the laughter as cues, they could reliably tell the difference between people who had just met and those who were long-time friends. These results suggest not only the link between true laughter and friendship but also that we aren’t fooling anyone when we pretend to laugh at another person’s joke.
Another theory, which takes the person-to-person connection provided by laughter a step further, is that laughter may be a replacement for the act of grooming each other. Grooming another is a behavior seen in primates. To groom someone else is a generous, one-sided act. Because it requires trust and investment of time, it bonds the groomer and groomee as friends.
As our communities got larger, we couldn’t all go around grooming each other to establish bonds. So, this is no longer our preferred method of exhibiting an offer of friendship. (And that’s probably a good thing.) But laughter, like the commitment offered through grooming, is also hard to fake, at least not without being obvious. And, unlike grooming, it can be done in a larger group and gives a more immediate impression. When we genuinely laugh, we signal that we are comfortable and feel like we belong.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are also a multitude of physical health benefits to laughter. Laughter can increase your oxygen intake, which can in turn stimulate your heart, lungs, and muscles. Laughing further releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals our bodies produce to make us feel happy and even relieve pain or stress. The act of increasing and then decreasing our heart rate and blood pressure through laughter is also ultimately calming and tension-relieving. Laughter can even boost our immune system response through the release of stress-and illness-reducing neuropeptides.
So laughter signals cooperation, a key aspect of human survival, and promotes a healthier body to boot. That’s the best excuse I’ve heard to make sure to take the time to enjoy a few laughs over dinner and drinks with friends.
Why Do People Laugh?
I was sitting in my kitchen one day and made an attempt at being funny, but nobody laughed. My kids began to laugh when I bemoaned that nothing I say is funny. Perhaps ever since we began to emerge from our ancestral lineage, humor has been part of who we are as human beings.
I believe we are always doing the best we can. I call this our I-M. «This is who I am and I Matter.» Our I-M is always adapting to four domains: our home domain, our social domain, our biological domain (brain and body), and our IC domain (how I see myself and how I think other people see me). Using the I-M lens there is no pathology. There is only our I-M—doing the best we can at this moment in time—while adapting to a shift in any of the domains to another I-M.
Humor serves remarkable survival purposes, spanning over all four domains of our I-M. In the biological domain, humor and laughing relieve stress. In the home domain, humor and laughter create an environment of trust, a no-judgement zone. In the social domain, humor binds communities together with shared values. And in the IC domain, well, it feels great to be able to share a laugh.
When is the last time you laughed? What about the last time you chuckled or laughed so hard you cried? I had a laugh-so-hard-you-cry moment recently. I was playing a board game when one of the players asked if his girlfriend had been to a local hospital. He explained that they use a certain kind of soap in the bathrooms: “So I can tell when someone has gone to the bathroom at the hospital.”
Without taking a beat another person responded: “Strange brag but okay.” The tone of the response, the cadence of the words, the soft and slight resignation resonated in such a way that I started laughing, and the thought of it makes me smile even as I write this now. It was not funny for everyone, at least not as funny. But for me, this brief interaction captured one of the reasons people laugh: incongruity.
Our brains are designed to compare bits of information. We are always comparing things. From a survival perspective, an ancestor that notices a new rustling in a bush that a moment before was still and then ran away or prepared for a fight survived more than an ancestor that didn’t notice the difference and was then eaten by a tiger. Both did the best they could in their I-M, but one was less successful.
Incongruity can be funny. The experience of an unexpected twist in a story or when something happens in real life can make us laugh just because it was unexpected and posed no danger. Like this dark humor joke: a woman is digging a hole in her backyard when she unexpectedly uncovers a treasure chest full of gold and jewels, runs to tell her husband, and then remembers why she was digging the hole. Is this funny to you or not?
Our sense of humor is influenced by our home and social domains. Things in my family may not seem funny to someone from another family. Perhaps an ancestor that could share a joke with another created more social bonding and with greater bonding came greater protection. Group humor extends to larger and larger groups, encompassing cultures and points in history. Humor can be transient. Jokes from my parent’s generation may seem politically incorrect today. Humor shifts from era to era.
Sometimes we laugh because we feel joy when superior to someone else. Some humor is mean and derisive, laughter at a person or group’s expense. Superiority humor can be traced back to the ancient Greeks like Socrates and Plato, but it probably has its roots long before the written word. Perhaps this was also adaptive at some time in our history and we see examples of this still in our world every day. Sometimes we laugh at another person’s misfortune: «schadenfreude.»
Superiority humor may actually mask deep insecurity. Insecurity is founded on an IC Domain that worried other people will see one as less-than, with less value and at greater risk of being kicked out of their protective group. While also an I-M, we don’t have to like it but try to understand it.
And then there is that nervous kind of laughter we all have when faced with a difficult or awkward situation. This laughter is the result of feeling relief, perhaps when danger has passed. From an IC domain, we all fear that we will be seen as less valuable, increasing the biological domain stress response from being rejected and kicked out of our protective group. In relief, we may giggle and feel less stressed out.
Laughter is the enactment of humor, turning a perception into an action. Laughter has all sorts of healing properties. Is that why humor evolved? Did early humans survive better than their counterparts if they could laugh when faced with adversity?
How can you use humor today to make a small change in any of your four domains? What kind of influence do you want to be on the I-M of those in your home or social domains?
I laugh every day. I find the humor around me and am grateful for that ability. What sort of things make you laugh? What do you find funny? In my family, it is often irony, something I got from both my parents. And while my home domain was not always funny growing up, my folks could find humor even in the midst of their divorce. As my mom once said, she was a «divorcée but always wanted to be a widow.»
The evolutionary origins of laughter are rooted more in survival than enjoyment
Laughter plays a crucial role in every culture across the world. But it’s not clear why laughter exists. While it is evidently an inherently social phenomenon – people are up to 30 times more likely to laugh in a group than when alone – laughter’s function as a form of communication remains mysterious.
A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and involving a large group of researchers led by Gregory Bryant from UCLA, suggests that laughter may indicate to listeners the friendship status of those laughing. The researchers asked listeners to judge the friendship status of pairs of strangers and friends based on short snippets of their simultaneous laughter. Drawn from 24 different societies, they found that listeners were able to reliably distinguish friends from strangers, based on specific acoustic characteristics of the laughter.
Laughter’s evolutionary past
Spontaneous laughter, which is unintentionally triggered by conversation or events, emerges in the first few months of life, even in children who are deaf or blind. Laughter not only transcends human cultural boundaries, but species boundaries, too: it is present in a similar form in other great apes. In fact, the evolutionary origins of human laughter can be traced back to between 10 and 16m years ago.
While laughter has been linked to higher pain tolerance and the signalling of social status, its principal function appears to be creating and deepening social bonds. As our ancestors began to live in larger and more complex social structures, the quality of relationships became crucial to survival. The process of evolution would have favoured the development of cognitive strategies that helped form and sustain these cooperative alliances.
Laughter probably evolved from laboured breathing during play such as tickling, which encourage cooperative and competitive behaviour in young mammals. This expression of the shared arousal experienced through play may have been effective in strengthening positive bonds, and laughter has indeed been shown to prolong the length of play behaviours in both children and chimpanzees, and to directly elicit both conscious and unconscious positive emotional responses in human listeners.
Laughter as a social tool
The emergence of laughter and other primal vocalisations was at first intimately tied to how we felt: we only laughed when aroused in a positive way, just as we cried only when distressed, or roared only when angry. The key development came with the ability to vocalise voluntarily, without necessarily experiencing some underlying pain, rage, or positive emotion. This increased vocal control, made possible as our brains grew more complex, was ultimately vital in the development of language. But it also allowed us to consciously mimic laughter (and other vocalisations), providing a deceptive tool to artificially quicken and expand social bonds – and so increase survival odds.
The idea that this volitional laughter also has an evolutionary origin is reinforced by the presence of similar behaviour in adult chimpanzees, who produce laugh imitations in response to the spontaneous laughter of others. The fake laughter of both chimpanzees and humans develops during childhood, is acoustically distinct from its spontaneous counterpart, and serves the same social bonding function.
Today, both spontaneous and volitional laughter are prevalent in almost every aspect of human life, whether sharing a joke with a mate or during polite chitchat with a colleague. However, they’re not equivalent in the ear of beholder. Spontaneous laughter is characterised by higher pitch (indicative of genuine arousal), shorter duration and shorter laugh bursts compared to volitional laughter. Researchers recently demonstrated that human listeners can distinguish between these two laugh types. Fascinatingly, they also showed that if you slow down and adjust the pitch of volitional laughter (to make it less recognisable as human) listeners can distinguish it from animal vocalisations, whereas they cannot do the same for spontaneous laughter, whose acoustic structure is far more similar to nonhuman primate equivalents.
Friend or stranger?
It’s this audible difference that is demonstrated in the paper by Bryant and his colleagues. Friends are more likely to produce spontaneous laughs, while strangers who lack an established emotional connection are more likely to produce volitional laughter.
The fact that we can accurately perceive these distinctions means that laughter is to some extent an honest signal. In the neverending evolutionary arms race, adaptive strategies for deception tend to co-evolve with strategies to detect that deception. The acoustic characteristics of authentic laughter are therefore useful cues to the bonds between and status of members of a group. This is something that may have aided decision-making in our evolutionary past.
However, the study found that judgement accuracy was on average only 11% higher than chance. Perhaps this is partially because some strangers may have produced spontaneous laughs and some friends volitional laughs, but it’s clear that imitating authentic emotional laughter is a valuable deceptive tool for social lubrication. One need only witness the contagious effects of canned laughter to see how true this is.
In the complex reality of modern human social interaction, laughs are often aromatic blends of the full-bodied spontaneous and dark but smooth volitional types, further blurring the boundaries. Regardless, the goal is the same and we will most likely find ourselves becoming fonder of those we share the odd chuckle with.
John Cleese once said: “Laughter connects you with people. It’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance or any sense of social hierarchy when you’re just howling with laughter.” He might just have hit the nail on the head – even when we’re faking it.
The benefits of laughter
It’s true: laughter is strong medicine. It draws people together in ways that trigger healthy physical and emotional changes in the body. Laughter strengthens your immune system, boosts mood, diminishes pain, and protects you from the damaging effects of stress. Nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance than a good laugh. Humor lightens your burdens, inspires hope, connects you to others, and keeps you grounded, focused, and alert. It also helps you release anger and forgive sooner.
With so much power to heal and renew, the ability to laugh easily and frequently is a tremendous resource for surmounting problems, enhancing your relationships, and supporting both physical and emotional health. Best of all, this priceless medicine is fun, free, and easy to use.
As children, we used to laugh hundreds of times a day, but as adults, life tends to be more serious and laughter more infrequent. But by seeking out more opportunities for humor and laughter, you can improve your emotional health, strengthen your relationships, find greater happiness—and even add years to your life.
Laughter is good for your health
Laughter relaxes the whole body. A good, hearty laugh relieves physical tension and stress, leaving your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes after.
Laughter boosts the immune system. Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving your resistance to disease.
Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.
Laughter protects the heart. Laughter improves the function of blood vessels and increases blood flow, which can help protect you against a heart attack and other cardiovascular problems.
Laughter burns calories. Okay, so it’s no replacement for going to the gym, but one study found that laughing for 10 to 15 minutes a day can burn approximately 40 calories—which could be enough to lose three or four pounds over the course of a year.
Laughter lightens anger’s heavy load. Nothing diffuses anger and conflict faster than a shared laugh. Looking at the funny side can put problems into perspective and enable you to move on from confrontations without holding onto bitterness or resentment.
Laughter may even help you to live longer. A study in Norway found that people with a strong sense of humor outlived those who don’t laugh as much. The difference was particularly notable for those battling cancer.
Laughter helps you stay mentally healthy
Laughter makes you feel good. And this positive feeling remains with you even after the laughter subsides. Humor helps you keep a positive, optimistic outlook through difficult situations, disappointments, and loss.
More than just a respite from sadness and pain, laughter gives you the courage and strength to find new sources of meaning and hope. Even in the most difficult of times, a laugh–or even simply a smile–can go a long way toward making you feel better. And laughter really is contagious—just hearing laughter primes your brain and readies you to smile and join in the fun.
Laughter stops distressing emotions. You can’t feel anxious, angry, or sad when you’re laughing.
Laughter helps you relax and recharge. It reduces stress and increases energy, enabling you to stay focused and accomplish more.
Laughter shifts perspective, allowing you to see situations in a more realistic, less threatening light. A humorous perspective creates psychological distance, which can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed and diffuse conflict.
Laughter draws you closer to others, which can have a profound effect on all aspects of your mental and emotional health.
Laughter brings people together and strengthens relationships
There’s a good reason why TV sitcoms use laugh tracks: laughter is contagious. You’re many times more likely to laugh around other people than when you’re alone. And the more laughter you bring into your own life, the happier you and those around you will feel.
Sharing humor is half the fun—in fact, most laughter doesn’t come from hearing jokes, but rather simply from spending time with friends and family. And it’s this social aspect that plays such an important role in the health benefits of laughter. You can’t enjoy a laugh with other people unless you take the time to really engage with them. When you care about someone enough to switch off your phone and really connect face to face, you’re engaging in a process that rebalances the nervous system and puts the brakes on defensive stress responses like “fight or flight.” And if you share a laugh as well, you’ll both feel happier, more positive, and more relaxed—even if you’re unable to alter a stressful situation.
Shared laughter is one of the most effective tools for keeping relationships fresh and exciting. All emotional sharing builds strong and lasting relationship bonds, but sharing laughter also adds joy, vitality, and resilience. And humor is a powerful and effective way to heal resentments, disagreements, and hurts. Laughter unites people during difficult times.
Humor and playful communication strengthen our relationships by triggering positive feelings and fostering emotional connection. When we laugh with one another, a positive bond is created. This bond acts as a strong buffer against stress, disagreements, and disappointment. Humor and laughter in relationships allows you to:
Be more spontaneous. Humor gets you out of your head and away from your troubles.
Let go of defensiveness. Laughter helps you forget resentments, judgments, criticisms, and doubts.
Release inhibitions. Your fear of holding back is pushed aside.
Express your true feelings. Deeply felt emotions are allowed to rise to the surface.
Laughter is an especially powerful tool for managing conflict and reducing tension when emotions are running high. Whether with romantic partners, friends and family, or co-workers, you can learn to use humor to smooth over disagreements, lower everyone’s stress level, and communicate in a way that builds up your relationships rather than breaking them down.
How to bring more laughter into your life
Laughter is your birthright, a natural part of life that is innate and inborn. Infants begin smiling during the first weeks of life and laugh out loud within months of being born. Even if you did not grow up in a household where laughter was a common sound, you can learn to laugh at any stage of life.
Begin by setting aside special times to seek out humor and laughter, as you might with exercising, and build from there. Eventually, you’ll want to incorporate humor and laughter into the fabric of your life, finding it naturally in everything.
Here are some ways to start:
Smile. Smiling is the beginning of laughter, and like laughter, it’s contagious. When you look at someone or see something even mildly pleasing, practice smiling. Instead of looking down at your phone, look up and smile at people you pass in the street, the person serving you a morning coffee, or the co-workers you share an elevator with. Notice the effect on others.
Count your blessings. Literally make a list. The simple act of considering the positive aspects of your life will distance you from negative thoughts that block humor and laughter. When you’re in a state of sadness, you have further to travel to reach humor and laughter.
When you hear laughter, move toward it. Sometimes humor and laughter are private, a shared joke among a small group, but usually not. More often, people are very happy to share something funny because it gives them an opportunity to laugh again and feed off the humor you find in it. When you hear laughter, seek it out and ask, “What’s funny?”
Spend time with fun, playful people. These are people who laugh easily–both at themselves and at life’s absurdities–and who routinely find the humor in everyday events. Their playful point of view and laughter are contagious. Even if you don’t consider yourself a lighthearted, humorous person, you can still seek out people who like to laugh and make others laugh. Every comedian appreciates an audience.
Bring humor into conversations. Ask people, “What’s the funniest thing that happened to you today? This week? In your life?”
So, what if you really can’t “find the funny?” Believe it or not, it’s possible to laugh without experiencing a funny event—and simulated laughter can be just as beneficial as the real thing. It can even make exercise more fun and productive. A Georgia State University study found that incorporating bouts of simulated laughter into an exercise program helped improve older adults’ mental health as well as their aerobic endurance. Plus, hearing others laugh, even for no apparent reason, can often trigger genuine laughter.
To add simulated laughter into your own life, search for laugh yoga or laugh therapy groups. Or you can start simply by laughing at other people’s jokes, even if you don’t find them funny. Both you and the other person will feel good, it will draw you closer together, and who knows, it may even lead to some spontaneous laughter.
Tips for developing your sense of humor
An essential ingredient for developing your sense of humor is to learn not to take yourself too seriously and laugh at your own mistakes and foibles. As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, we all do foolish things from time to time. Instead of feeling embarrassed or defensive, embrace your imperfections. While some events in life are clearly sad and not opportunities for laughter, most don’t carry an overwhelming sense of either sadness or delight. They fall into the gray zone of ordinary life—giving you the choice to laugh or not. So, choose to laugh whenever you can.
Laugh at yourself. Share your embarrassing moments. The best way to take yourself less seriously is to talk about times when you took yourself too seriously.
Attempt to laugh at situations rather than bemoan them. Look for the humor in a bad situation, and uncover the irony and absurdity of life. When something negative happens, try to make it a humorous anecdote that will make others laugh.
Surround yourself with reminders to lighten up. Keep a toy on your desk or in your car. Put up a funny poster in your office. Choose a computer screensaver that makes you laugh. Frame photos of you and your family or friends having fun.
Remember funny things that happen. If something amusing happens or you hear a joke or funny story you really like, write it down or tell it to someone to help you remember it.
Don’t dwell on the negative. Try to avoid negative people and don’t dwell on news stories, entertainment, or conversations that make you sad or unhappy. Many things in life are beyond your control—particularly the behavior of other people. While you might view carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders as admirable, in the long run it’s unrealistic and unhealthy.
Find your inner child. Pay attention to children and try to emulate them—after all, they are the experts on playing, taking life lightly, and laughing at ordinary things.
Deal with stress. Stress can be a major impediment to humor and laughter, so it’s important to keep your stress levels in check. One great technique to relieve stress in the moment is to draw upon a favorite memory that always makes you smile—something your kids did, for example, or something funny a friend told you.
Don’t go a day without laughing. Think of it like exercise or breakfast and make a conscious effort to find something each day that makes you laugh. Set aside 10 to 15 minutes and do something that amuses you. The more you get used to laughing each day, the less effort you’ll have to make.
Using humor to overcome challenges and enhance your life
The ability to laugh, play, and have fun not only makes life more enjoyable but also helps you solve problems, connect with others, and think more creatively. People who incorporate humor and play into their daily lives find that it renews them and all of their relationships.
Life brings challenges that can either get the best of you or become playthings for your imagination. When you “become the problem” and take yourself too seriously, it can be hard to think outside the box and find new solutions. But when you play with the problem, you can often transform it into an opportunity for creative learning.
Playing with problems seems to come naturally to children. When they are confused or afraid, they make their problems into a game, giving them a sense of control and an opportunity to experiment with new solutions. Interacting with others in playful ways helps you retain this creative ability.
As laughter, humor, and play become integrated into your life, your creativity will flourish and new opportunities for laughing with friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and loved ones will occur to you daily. Laughter takes you to a higher place where you can view the world from a more relaxed, positive, and joyful perspective.