Why We Need to Laugh

What’s making you laugh right now? Tell a story about wayward bodily functions or put on a Louis C.K. stand-up act, and you’ll have me.

But the truth is, scientifically, most of what you laugh at and why you laugh strangely has nothing to do with farts, Jon Stewart, or banana peels–hilarious though they might be. It does, however, have a whole lot to do with your socialization.

A few weeks back, I wrote about why you cry, and we learned that crying is an evolutionary tactic to illicit sympathy and forge bonds. And surprise, surprise, scientists say laughing might be its own social survival mechanism. Much like crying, laughter is a global phenomenon in need of no Google translation. And while we can fake laugh or cry ourselves to a red carpet, genuine tears and authentic giggles only happen when we’re unconscious of the behavior.

In fifth grade I was chided for my “monkey” laugh. And I think we all feel sort of chimpish when snickering. It’s no coincidence that laughter is an evolutionary gift from the apes. Scientists say all signs point to laughter being an instinctive rather than learned behavior. Robert Provine, leading giggle-expert (yes, that’s a real thing) at the University of Maryland, cites the origin of laughter as, “the sound of labored breathing from rough and tumble play,” first heard amongst chimpanzees. As we’ve developed, human play has transitioned largely from the physical to the cognitive, though our first hee-haws can still be heard through the labored breathing of games like tickling and tag. Laughing often signifies discovery, surprise, and social engagement. Because of the apparent hilarity of novelty, babies laugh a reported 300 times a day compared to the average 20 times of a stick-in-the-mud grown adult. Once we grow up, giggling transitions from a reaction to playing with cereal into an interpretation of much more sophisticated cultural marvels like, you know, Tyra Banks.

What’s the anatomy of a guffaw? Laughter breaks down to a rhythmic series of short vowel-like sounds repeated about every 210 milliseconds and is most often transcribed as “ha-ha”. Put like that, it sounds like psychotic behavior, but it’s a normal physiological response to humor as well as other social cues that incorporates gesturing and the production of sounds. When you hear something that delights you, an electrical wave moves through your cerebral cortex, and if the wave is negative, your body decides to send out a laugh. While doing so, your zygomatic major muscle lifts your upper lip, facial muscles contract, and the epiglottis half closes the larynx, giving you a gasp effect. Sometimes tear ducts are stimulated, and as your half-closed throat struggles for air, your face may turn red. This would be the labored breathing portion of your play. The circuit reaction certainly electrifies many parts of our noggins, but it’s also doing wonders for the rest of our bodies.

You know how they say laughter is the best medicine? Louis Pasteur might frown at that assessment, but giggling is great for the immune system. We most often laugh at things that stress us out, so it’s not pretzel logic that laughing reduces stress. As we laugh, the body produces Gamma-interferron, a disease-fighting protein, T-cells, which protect the immune system, and B-cells, which make antibodies. Laughing works like a feel-good angioplasty. It opens our respiratory system, oxygenates the brain, increases our heart rate, and lowers our blood pressure. When we laugh we are exercising our diaphragm, abdominal, back, facial, leg, and arm muscles. Maybe we should cancel our gym memberships and just invest in a box-set of Arrested Development already. According to some scientists, laughing 100 times is the physical equivalent to riding a bike for 15 minutes. Even a study of heart attack patients suggests that those with underperforming tickers were less likely to laugh in everyday life. That means right about now is the best time get in your yuk-yuks, because taking yourself too serious might just kill you, literally.

Besides tickling our now strong, calcium-enriched funny bones, the singular mammalian practice of play also develops skills for non-recreational activities. Does an “LOL” give us an evolutionary stronghold? You betcha. Laughing is like a dress rehearsal for life. We work as a collective and navigate challenging terrain better when we’ve cracked a few knock-knock jokes en masse. Inciting laughter is often a social vocalization that can change and shape other’s behaviors and moods. But, don’t feel too much pressure. Though you might bemoan the fact that you can’t tell a well wrought joke, laughter is more often preceded by quotidian mundanities. In fact, research shows that only about 10 to 15% of all laughter follows speech that somehow resembles a joke. So what’s making us slap our knees, if not a well-delivered gag? Boringly enough, greetings, unexpected occurrences, and one’s own speech are common laugh-inducers. We laugh because we want to appear warm and engaged in social situations, and we howl like hyenas because it is a coping mechanism for hardships and trauma. And while sometimes staring at YouTube alone in bed has me at near peeing-my-pants levels of rapture, we’re all way more likely to laugh if we’re in a group, no matter what the stimuli. Laughter in social situations takes place about 30% more frequently than in individual cases, hermits be damned.

Because laughter is a quick, automatic social behavior, you can catch it quicker than herpes from a public toilet seat. Ever caught a round of the giggles from a nearby chortler? Hearing laughter often triggers the same neural circuits that get you cracking up and, thus, that’s why it can feel contagious. The power of suggestion is mighty. Sometimes a tittering rash can get serious. The Tanzanian laughter epidemic of 1962 arose with middle school girls that couldn’t stop cackling and eventually lead to the shutting down of schools in a laugh battle that lasted about a year. Gelotologists, the laugh experts, explain infectious laughter by stating that once an action is underway, it is hard to put an end to it. Often bouts of laughter can spread as they put at ease a group of people experiencing a particular period of stress or tension.

So, what makes a good jokester? We’ve all seen the habitual churn of “Women Are Funny” think-pieces come to light, and while, indeed, women are just as funny as men, it seems that the social play of laughter is still quite sadly gendered. Statistically, men are the laugh-getters and women are the laughers. Research shows women often seek men with a good sense of humor, while men seek women that will laugh at whatever they say. Social cues from archaic mating rituals? Perhaps. To quote the character Harris from Freaks and Geeks, “Get a woman laughing, and you’ve got a woman loving.” This connects to the fact that laughter forges trust in a companion and is often used by those in power to control the emotional climate of a group. Those with the upper hand are those that wield the funny. An effective boss has their subordinates laughing, connects to them, and even can use humor as a way of changing social behavior. Whether a person is being laughed with or laughed at can sway an entire group dynamic and determine who holds audience.

So, please, give us your Seinfelds, your Cosbys, your huddled Marx Brothers. Laughter is essential. Chuckles are a social vocalization that bonds people together. Think of how many buds you wouldn’t have if you never shared a joke. Laughter develops the types of communities that make for a healthier, more solidified people. While our age, cultures, and regions will most likely determine what particular inanities we laugh at, there is no denying that it is good company that begets the most ha-ha’s. And while older humans are less likely to giggle than their tiny counterparts, it’s important for our hearts and minds that age doesn’t curb our cachinnation appreciation. Being in stitches is often the result of incongruous events or feelings of superiority, but it is really most useful as a tool of relief. Human history is nothing if not a series of episodes of mounting terror followed by a round of hearty belly laughs. Forgo your next depressive breakdown or coronary, and launch a preemptive strike of the viral, paper-ripping baby videovariety. Go forth and giggle like your life depends on it; it does.

You can read more from Kate Hakala on her blog.

(Image via Shutterstock).

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