Humor and Health:

The evolutionary benefits of laughing easily

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According to Mora-Ripoli (2012), the old cliche that laughter is the best medicine is really true: laughter, even in the absence of something that is funny, can actually be healing. “Laughter can lead to direct physiological changes to the muscular, cardiovascular, immune, and neuroendocrine systems, which would have immediate or long-term beneficial effects to the body” (Mora-Ripoli 2013:57). Although humor can provoke laughter, the two are not necessarily conjoined and even forced laughter produces positive physiological changes in the body in terms of heart rate, blood pressure, and other critical factors that have benefits for the subject. This suggests that laughter is not a cultural product but an advantageous biological ‘adaption’ of the human species as a social animal.

The unique benefits of laughter (as opposed to humor or enjoying something entertaining) are tied to its mutuality. Although it is certainly possible to laugh in isolation, because laughter is a form of articulated expression, people are far more likely to laugh when they are part of a group, and sociability is linked to good health. In fact, evolutionary biologists have speculated that laughter began as a positive “biological adaptation, a trait that gave humans some sort of evolutionary benefit. What could that be…laughter signals social interest, especially in a romantic context” (Van Vugt 2012). Yet another cliche is true: the idea that ‘he makes me laugh’ as a reason to love someone may actually be hard-wired into our DNA.

The ‘feel good’ chemicals stimulated by laughter in the modern human body and brain are the result of centuries of evolutionary selection of people who like to laugh and who are more likely to marry and pass on their genes to their offspring. Laughter stimulates positive social interactions, ‘smoothing’ relationships between people. In contrast, humor such as sarcasm does not have the same effect and may be very cerebral and isolating in nature. On an articulated level, what seems funny can be very culturally ‘bound.’ While all societies laugh, the subject of humor is not always a universally transmissible concept and many cultural miscommunications have arisen because of a different understanding of what is funny. Certain subjects may be taboo in one culture but not in another culture. For example, “a content analysis of the jokes revealed a striking difference between Singaporeans and Americans: Americans were far more likely to tell sexual jokes. Thirty-seven percent of Americans told sex jokes, but only 23% of Singaporeans did the same” (White & Jackson 2012). The humor of centuries ago does not always translate into modern terminology on a verbal or visual level because it is located in a different context. Humor alone cannot connect people: but the physical interaction provided by laughter can.

The social bonds facilitated by laughter may even have a palliative effect. An experiment which gave a group of subjects a pain test (putting a frozen wine cooler sleeve on their arm); then showed one group a comedy video and the other group a non-humorous clip found that “after watching the comedy pain tolerance went up by as much as 50% in some of our studies,” due to, the researchers speculated, the release of endorphins (Van Vugt 2012). On a purely biological level, people who laugh more frequently and release such endorphins are more likely to be mentally hardier and have positive social connections — and once again, this increases their likelihood that they will marry, have children, and pass on these genes to the next generation. The content of the humor that the subjects witnessed did not matter; rather it was the act of laughter that was positive in its effects.

Interestingly, however, not all forms of laughter are created alike “the human brain is not able in the end to distinguish spontaneous from self-induced laughter (‘motion creates emotion’ theory); therefore, their corresponding health-related benefits are alleged to be alike” (Mora-Ripoli 2013:58). However, stimulated laughter, induced laughter by another person, and pathological laughter do not have the same benefits. One possible reason might be that these other types of laughter do not reinforce the same social connections as do other types of laughter. For example, both spontaneous laughter at someone’s joke and even forcing yourself to laugh for politeness’ sake at someone else’s joke foster social connections. However, simulated laughter (such as occurs through tickling), induced laughter (through drugs), or pathological laughter as the result of a mental illness does not foster such interpersonal connections and may even result in harmful social relationships (such as anger at being molested by someone forcing the laughter, drug use, and other mental conditions).

In my own, personal life, I have often found humor to be a great method of stress relief. Whenever tensions are high at work, cracking an innocent joke is a wonderful way to diffuse a potentially uncomfortable situation. Similarly, amongst friends and family, I find that no matter how angry we might be at one another, provided we can laugh at ourselves, things don’t seem so bad. It is not necessarily the content of what is said — in fact, a silly joke can work just as well as a clever one — but rather the mutuality of laughter that is important.

While laughter may be a universal construct it is important to note that not all societies have the same etiquette for laughter. For example, one anthropologist noted the extremely expressive style of the Mbuti tribe when they laugh: “they hold onto one another as if for support, slap their sides, snap their fingers, and go through all manner of physical contortions” in a manner which would be considered overly demonstrative in our culture (Smith 2008). There are also places where it a social faux pas to laugh, because of the context, such as during a serious ceremony, film, or when someone is giving a lecture about a non-humorous topic. Breaking the taboo of when it is considered ‘correct’ to laugh can be very uncomfortable and actually cause social ostracism.

This suggests that there may be another element at play in laughter: the social connection that must be there before the laughter occurs. If laughter is not permissible between two persons, it is unlikely that there is the relaxed, comfortable and socially beneficial connection that may also be interrelated to the lowering of blood pressure, heart rate, and release of endorphins that laughter produces. The absence of the ability to laugh may thus function as a ‘danger signal’ and a warning not to be too relaxed and to remain in ‘flight or fright’ mode. Laughing can break the tension sometimes, but in very fraught and inappropriate situations this type of ‘release’ may actually create more trouble than inhibit it.

The fact that laughter has proven to be so physically beneficial has caused some people to use it as a form of actual therapy, in which a ‘safe space’ is created for people to laugh, often in group settings. This has also been called ‘laughter yoga’ and there is a growing number of yoga practitioners in India who have adopted this as part of their spiritual practice: “a form of laughter therapy called Hasya Yoga (hasya means laughter in Sanskrit) that combines deep, controlled breathing and stretches with various types of forced laughter” (Bokur n.d.). Although the idea of ‘forcing’ someone to laugh may seem counterintuitive, much like forcing a smile can lift someone’s mood or ‘forcing’ yourself to go to a party can result in feeling good because of the social connections fostered by such actions, so can forced laughter. Ultimately, a lack of sociability, not ‘forcing’ emotions seems to be the most damaging thing to human health. A recent study found “those with poor social connections had on average 50% higher odds of death…than people with more robust social ties” and people who are willing to laugh with others and who laugh more may be better able to form such critical social ties — and pass on their genes to the next generation as a result (Blue 2010).


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