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10th April 2024

Why are you laughing: The science of humour

While humour is an innate part of being human, dating back to ‘primate laughter’, exactly what makes something funny is still mostly unknown
Why are you laughing: The science of humour
Credit: simpleinsomnia @ Flickr.

Over the holidays, you probably smiled at a family member or laughed at one of their jokes. Maybe you even laughed at them. But, you most likely don’t remember how many times you’ve laughed today, let alone counted them. However, if you were to try counting, scientific research suggests that adults laugh about 15 times per day and smile slightly more, typically reaching about 20 smiles throughout daylight hours. 

The mysteries of our delight

So clearly, humour is common, but it is also elusive. Although we have dictionary definitions to tell us what is amusing – we will giggle intuitively and often on cue – it is much more difficult to pinpoint the essence of funniness. These feelings, which are elicited by everyday interactions, words, images, TV, and TikTok, are often shallow and insufficiently described by science alone.

Interestingly, researchers have found that even our smirks and grins are not as straightforward as they seem. Most neurotypical people have 19 different smiles, but only six have been shown to occur when we are happy; the rest signify emotions like pain, embarrassment, discomfort, and even horror or genuine misery. Having a good time smiling and laughing may come naturally, but it’s not simple.

Credit: simpleinsomnia @ Flickr.

Historical hilarity

Pre-18th century humour was lesser known and of little interest to pretty much everyone, and when it did get taken up, the research was surprisingly negative and, at times, truly dark.

Plato was the most influential philosopher specialising in the malicious origins of laughter. He is accredited with the oldest theory of humour, along with other Greek philosophers, which proposes that people find others’ misfortunes and shortcomings funny because they feel better about themselves in comparison and can, therefore, make light of them. This conceptual explanation for laughter is called the Superiority Theory or, more colloquially, self-deprecating humour.

Dark comedy

The controversial psychologist Sigmund Freud formulated an equally hair-raising theory of laughter called Release Theory, which allows people to express and let go of ‘nervous energy’. Freud’s thought explains why taboo or inappropriate conversations and jokes that tackle sticky social topics can make us laugh. 

This theory proposes that when the punch line to a joke comes, energy has been built up and used to suppress inappropriate emotions like desire, anger, or hate, which can be released with laughter. Like the standup comedian Jim Gaffigan says, ‘The worst is when you ask someone on a date, and they turn you down. “Cause what they’re really saying is, ‘You know what? I don’t even feel like eating a free meal around you.”

The final and longest-standing explanation for the psychology behind humour is Incongruity Theory, which suggests that we laugh when we think one thing will happen and the situation suddenly changes to become incompatible with our original assumption. This idea was surmised by another philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant and his predecessors thought that, like a joke, the conception is set, and then a twisting plot turns the listener’s view on its head. But as we know well from the plot of a knock-knock joke, not all reinterpreted incongruities are actually funny.

Laughing: a sticky social glue

The above explanations neatly summarise humour as a rigorously hypothesised, measurable, categorically definable, psychologically scientific concept. But as anyone who has ever laughed intuitively knows, there is more to this than an oversimplified and reductionist view of being funny. Smiling is infectious; you can catch it like the common cold. When we smile, the human brain activates neurons that fire in sync; this synchronous action is the neurological trigger for silliness, both playful and profound.

Evolutionarily speaking, laughter signals connection and plays a pivotal role in well-being and human spontaneity. Humour is also an important part of bonding, allowing us to build social connections based on shared amusement. Studies show that people are significantly more likely to laugh at a video backgrounded by ‘canned laughter’ in comparison to the same clip with no laugh track. Much to the same point, people are over thirty times more likely to laugh when they are in a group.

Credit: simpleinsomnia @ Flickr.

Humour helps us function in and amongst one another to pick up subtle social cues, bond, and even find each other interesting. For instance, a large study including 24 cultures and 966 participants found that 60% of the time, people know from short sound bites of two people laughing if the people are strangers or long-time friends.

Humour is healthy

Humour’s effects on our well-being are obvious – as John Masefield once said, “The days that make us happy make us wise.” Less obvious is the benefit of its byproduct, laughter, which can be curative for many common physical problems and can be good for the body. Though still limited, there is a growing canon of scientific evidence supporting the importance of laughter and its value in society as a source of happiness.

On a neurological level, laughing can reduce stress and effectively decrease pain; it also gives your immune system a boost. Most surprisingly, laughter can even increase your oxygen intake. Although perhaps more random, the epitome of humour (especially for Western culture) researched to date is the lucrative potential for laughter, and no, I am not talking about comedy, I’m sure you already know that makes money. There’s an expanding market for ‘humour coaches’ and what is called ‘laughter yoga’, which has been dubbed creativity’s elixir; maybe next, we’ll bottle and sell it.

Humour grows on its own side of the globe

Humour is a ubiquitous human trait; people from all cultures laugh, and babies often laugh long before they can speak. And although laughter is undeniably a great equaliser across age groups and geographies, humour is unique to the culture. Indeed, being a certain brand of funny is often associated with cultural normativity, and people from different cultures perceive humour differently. For instance, you’ve probably been reminded on holiday in another country that ‘the British are sarcastic’.

While scientists haven’t yet specified humour within national boundaries, they have looked at it regionally. Research has found that there is a ‘Western humour’ which dates back to Ancient Greece, at which time it was a uniquely ‘Western’ value to embrace humour.

‘Eastern humour’ has been largely researched in a Chinese cultural context where Confucianism, the dominant philosophy in China for thousands of years, has devalued humour. Confucianism emphasises the importance of having a good moral character and stresses seriousness and a certain level of personal restriction, which has diminished the overall importance of humour. In fact, the thought of being called out as funny threatens many who see their social status as based on their seriousness and see humour as a sign of “intellectual shallowness and social informality.” Cultural researcher Xiao Dong Yue suggests that Chinese people don’t find humour to be a desirable personality trait at all.

In Western cultures, conversely, humour has become an indispensable ‘coping strategy’ for negative emotions. As Elton John said, ‘British humour is very cruel. I love it. It’s my favourite kind of humour; if it isn’t cruel and funny, it doesn’t really cut the cake for me.’ Here, Elton John’s point is exacting: The skill of being funny goes a long way in coping with your daily lows, simply because people enjoy laughing in the face of stress and difficulty.

Humour is practised differently throughout the world, and the West-East culture has been found to be the least similar. But there is a lot more we don’t know. In the words of humour researcher, Giovannantonio Forabosco: “What is humour? Maybe in 40 years, we’ll know.” Until then, we must deal with the mystery of our delight and remain in suspense, with little understanding of its origins. 

The key to happiness

Credit: timmossholder @ Unsplash.

Humour, as far as we know, serves an evolutionary purpose by expanding our social comprehension. In fact, studies show that smiling people usually appear more likeable, courteous, and even competent. Smilers tend to be more productive in work environments, advance faster to higher-level positions at work, and make more money. Outside of the office, laughter also enhances feelings of social connectedness, from friends to acquaintances.

Ultimately, from the belly up, laughter is fundamentally functional, but it also has real assets for people like you and me in everyday life. I highly recommend you laugh frequently or find a funnier friendship group if necessary.

Words by Beatrice Timken

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