Feature Archive

Why Do We Laugh?

No Laughing Matter

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Whether you snort, cackle, chortle, or have a wild, weird little giggle, you have a "laugh print," a personal signature that's too, too you.

Laughter is so basic to humans, we barely notice it -- unless it totally pleases or absolutely annoys us.

But laughter has power -- the power to energize the hum-drum, add levity to the everyday blah-blah-blah. Laughter carries such a social connection that it's a mating ritual, a way to bond. Studies suggest that laughter may boost our health.

Our all-too-human laughter sets us -- and our close cousins, the primates -- apart from all other species that roam our planet, says Robert R. Provine, PhD, a behavioral neurobiologist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

"Think about it the next time you walk through woods listening to the odd cries and calls of the creatures that live there: When you laugh, those creatures are hearing sounds that are just as odd and just as characteristic of our own species," he writes in his book, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.

No Laughing Matter

Provine has spent a decade studying laughter. It's the best way to understand human behavior, he tells WebMD. "Laughter is a mechanism everyone has; laughter is part of universal human vocabulary. There are thousands of languages, hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone speaks laughter in pretty much the same way."

Everyone has the capacity to laugh. Children born deaf and blind are able to laugh. Babies laugh long before they acquire speech. Even apes have a form of "pant-pant-pant" laughter.

Laughter is primitive, an unconscious vocalization, Provine says. "In laughter we emit sounds and express emotions that come from deep within our biologic being -- grunts and cackles from our animal unconscious," he writes.

Do you seem to laugh more than others? It's likely genetic, he explains.

Consider this story: One set of "giggle twins," separated at birth, was not reunited until 40 years later.

"Until they met each other, neither of these exceptionally happy ladies had known anyone who laughed as much as she did," Provine reports. "Yet, both were reared by adoptive parents they described as undemonstrative and dour. These gleeful twins probably inherited some aspects of their laugh sound and pattern, readiness to laugh, and perhaps even taste in humor."

The Sex Connection

Because laughter is largely spontaneous and uncensored, it is a powerful probe into social relationships, writes Provine. Laughter can make people seem warm or authoritative, cooperative or ineffectual, or just plain obnoxious.

Tickling has long been the trigger that creates laughter, something even the ancients knew, says Provine. Tickling itself is an interesting phenomenon, he points out. When parents tickle an infant or a child, it's to evoke laughter.

In fact, tickling is much the same behavior as the rough-and-tumble play of apes. "Except when apes laugh, it's a pant-pant-pant kind of sound rather than ha-ha-ha," he points out.

Among adults, tickling is an important part of foreplay. "Mention tickling, and people may have an image of being held down by older brother. But they forget that tickling is also part of a rough and tumble in sack." Well, a gentler form of tickling certainly is, he clarifies.

Provine has studied male/female laughter patterns. In one series of "urban safaris," he set out to study humans in their natural habitat of shopping malls, city sidewalks, and the university student union -- documenting 1,200 laugh episodes.

His findings: Speakers laugh more than their audiences -- 46% more. The effect was even more striking when females were doing the talking. They laughed 126% more often than the guys they were talking to.

"Female speakers are enthusiastic laughers whoever their audience may be," writes Provine. "Male speakers are pickier, laughing more when conversing with their male friends than with an audience of females. The least amount of speaker laughter occurred when males were conversing with females."

The social aspect of laughing was striking, he says. People laughed about 30 times more when they were around others than when they were alone. Compare that to other social interactions: People smiled more than six times more and talked more than four times more in social than solitary situations.

Like small talk, laughter plays a somewhat similar role in social bonding, solidifying friendships and pulling people into the fold. You can define "friends" and "group members" as those with whom you laugh.

But what makes us guffaw? "Our study failed to discover The Mother of All Jokes or even her next of kin," he writes. "In fact, most laughter did not follow anything resembling a joke, storytelling, or other formal attempt at humor."

Most laughter is about playful relationships between people, he says. "Laughter is not about jokes. If you pay attention to everyday life, you laugh," he tells WebMD.

Laugh Yourself to Better Health?

Many claim that laughter carries health benefits, that it represents all the positive emotions that offset hostility -- which should have positive effects on the immune system.

Provine says he's more skeptical than most -- admitting that among health activists, he's as welcome as a skunk at a picnic. Most research is very limited, he says.

The idea that laughter is therapeutic was popularized by Norman Cousins in his 1976 article, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, and expanded into a book. In it, Cousins describes his affliction with a painful and life-threatening degenerative disease (ankylosing spondylitis) and his successful self-treatment with vitamin C, the Marx Brothers, and episodes from the old television series Candid Camera.

It makes sense that laughter -- like any positive activity -- can affect overall health, Provine admits. But laughter is actually a very violent activity. "Laughter increases your heart rate, but would similar changes be produced by yelling or singing? There may be something unique to laughter, but that research hasn't been done yet."

Baby steps have been made to prove laughter's health benefits, says Margaret Stuber, PhD, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA. She also is co-director of the UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center's Rx Laughter, a nonprofit project dedicated to helping the ill via humor and to supporting more scientific research on laughter.

Stuber has found that when children watched funny videos -- while their hands were in ice water -- they could tolerate pain better, she reports. Why? Children who laughed more assessed the experience as less unpleasant. They also had lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

Laughing-Impaired Can Get Help

Indeed, helping people change their view of life can lessen anxiety, reduce chronic stress -- adding laughter to their lives, she says.

Parents can teach their kids to see the funny side of life -- simply by seeing it themselves, Stuber says. Therapy can also help change the way you view life.

"We're starting to put puzzle pieces together, starting to see that people can be trained to see the funny side of things," she tells WebMD. "I think it's about learning to view situations as non-threatening or not embarrassing."

One study showed that people who are able to laugh -- rather than being embarrassed or angry in certain situations -- tend to have fewer heart attacks and better blood pressure, says Stuber. "When something happened, like a waiter spilling wine on their sleeve, those who laughed about it had less incidence of second heart attacks," she tells WebMD.

"There's more and more good research being done on the effects of laughter," Stuber says.

Once a psychotherapist, Stephan Wischerth now leads the New York City's Laughter Club. It's just what it sounds like: people get together to laugh, to lose their anxieties in contagious laughter. Among those who attend: someone with Stage 4 cancer, another person with a degenerative nerve disease, people who are really stressed out.

The contagious quality inherent in laughter -- that's what helps bolster them, he says.

"Laughing makes people laugh," Wischerth tells WebMD. "I find that we really have lot of laughs just frozen inside our chest, just dying to get out. I give people permission to laugh out loud, be silly, get rid of stress. They discover for themselves how to take life a little less seriously. People feel like they're constantly under barrage. Why not joke about it?"

Even "forced laughter" gets people to crack up, says Kim McIntyre, another Laughter Club leader at the Getting Well Campus in Orlando. As part of a mind/body/wellness program, McIntyre's efforts stimulate the inner child that too often gets lost as we age.

"Ninety percent of the time, when we start out with forced laughter, people start laughing," she tells WebMD. "Pretty soon, there's an overwhelming amount of genuine laughter. Your ear hears it and you start laughing."

Published Nov. 25, 2002.