Why We Laugh

Story at-a-glance -

  • Humans are born with the ability to laugh, and laughter acts as a universal language across all cultures
  • Social laughter is 30 times more frequent than solitary laughter, likely because laughter developed as a way to strengthen group bonds and emotional relationships
  • Laughter follows jokes only about 10-20 percent of the time
  • In most cases, laughter follows a banal comment or only slightly humorous one, which signals that the person is more important than the material in triggering laughter
  • Laughter may reduce stress hormones and boost your immune function, while also inducing optimistic feelings, offering pain relief, and more

By Dr. Mercola

Did you know that you're neurologically programmed to laugh in a certain way? It is true. We virtually all are, actually, as humans are born with the tendency to laugh. This is why if you travel around the globe, you can use laughter to communicate with almost anyone.

Laughter is a universal language but, unlike language, laughter occurs unconsciously. It's very difficult to laugh on the spot, and even then it won't feel authentic.

Real, involuntary laughter involves brain mechanisms (many of which remain a mystery) and triggers unexpected sensations and thoughts. When you laugh, your entire body may be affected, from your facial expressions and breathing patterns to the muscles in your arms and legs.

In the video above, Dr. Robert Provine, who has been studying laughter for 20 years, explains some of the fascinating reasons why we laugh and what this primal mechanism reveals about our psyche.

Social Laughter Is 30 Times More Frequent Than Solitary Laughter

If you're laughing, you're far more likely to be surrounded by others, as Dr. Provine's research suggests, the critical laughter trigger for most people is another person, not a joke or funny movie.

After observing 1,200 people laughing in their natural environments (a process he described as "sidewalk neuroscience"), Dr. Provine and his team found that laughter followed jokes only about 10-20 percent of the time. 

In most cases, the laughter followed a banal comment or only slightly humorous one, which signals that the person is more important than the material in triggering laughter.

Often, there was a playfulness in the group and a positive emotional tone as well. Interestingly, nearly half the time it was the speaker doing the laughing, as opposed to the "audience," but virtually all of the laughter occurred in a group setting. In fact, one of the key reasons why we laugh may be as a way to bond with others and strengthen our relationships. According to Dr. Provine:1

"Students in my classes confirmed the social nature of laughter by recording the circumstances of their laughter in diaries. After excluding the vicarious social effects of media (television, radio, books, etc.), its social nature was striking.

Laughter was 30 times more frequent in social than solitary situations. The students were much more likely to talk to themselves or even smile when alone than to laugh. However happy we may feel, laughter is a signal we send to others and it virtually disappears when we lack an audience."

Laughter's Role in Meeting Your Mate

If laughter is a tool for emotional and social bonding, it would make sense that it plays a role in the mating game as well, and it very clearly does, although there are distinct differences in male and female laugh patterns.

Research by Dr. Provine found that women laugh 126 percent more than men in cross-gender conversations, with men preferring to be the one prompting the laughter. In a review of more than 3,700 newspaper personal ads, Dr. Provine revealed that women were 62 percent more likely to mention laughter, including seeking a mate with a sense of humor, while men were more likely to offer humor in their ads. He noted:2

"The laughter of the female, not the male, is the critical index of a healthy relationship. Guys can laugh or not, but what matters is that women get their yuks in."

A German study also revealed that the more a woman laughed during a first meeting with a man, the greater her interest in him was. The men also reported being more interested in the women who laughed often.3

This definition is simplified, of course, as the research suggests gender patterns of laughter "are fluid and shift subconsciously with social circumstance." For instance, an executive, whether male or female, is far less likely to giggle in the workplace than while out with their friends.

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Laughter Is Contagious

The saying "laugh and the whole world laughs with you" is more than just an expression: laughter really is contagious. The sound of laughter triggers regions in the premotor cortical region of your brain, which is involved in moving your facial muscles to correspond with sound.4 It's thought that laughter may have occurred before humans could speak as a way to strengthen group bonds, as even today our brains are wired to prime us to smile or laugh when we hear others laughing.

Also interesting is laughter's distinctive pattern. It rarely occurs in the middle of a sentence. Instead, laughter tends to occur at the end of sentences or during a break in speech, which suggests language is given the priority. According to Dr. Provine:5

"The occurrence of speaker laughter at the end of phrases suggests that a neurologically based process governs the placement of laughter in speech, and that different brain regions are involved in the expression of cognitively oriented speech and the more emotion-laden vocalization of laughter."

Laughter Is Good for Your Health

Laughter makes you feel good, but it's also good for your physical health. Perhaps one of the most well-known forerunners of "the science of happiness" was Norman Cousins, who in 1964 was diagnosed with a life-threatening autoimmune disease. After being given a one in 500 chance of recovery, Cousins created his own laughter therapy program, which he claims was the key to his ultimate recovery.

Indeed, research has shown laughter may reduce stress hormones and boost your immune function,6 while also inducing optimistic feelings.7 Laughter has demonstrated a wealth of physiological, psychological, social, spiritual, and quality-of-life benefits, such that increasing numbers of health care centers are adopting laughter therapy as a form of complementary care. Opportunities that provide for group laughter, such as laughter yoga and laugh parties, are also becoming increasingly popular around the world. Just a short list of the benefits of laughter therapy are noted below:

Relaxing your muscles Triggering the release of your body's natural painkillers (endorphins) Improving sleep
Enhancing creativity and memory Easing digestion Enhancing oxygen intake
Improving well-being and positive emotions Boosting immune function Improving blood pressure

The Dark Side of Laughter

It should be mentioned that not all laughter is positive. When laughter is cruel or directed at you, it can cause social bonds to break and result in serious emotional harm. In fact, philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle are said to have studied laughter not so much in a positive light but because they believed it showed derision and asserted superiority.8 When in the wrong hands, laughter can become a powerful tool for exclusion, manipulation, and even social control.

Do You Get Your 15-20 Minutes of Laughter a Day?

Humans begin laughing at about 3.5 to 4 months of age. And if you're lucky, you'll continue for the rest of your life. When done in a positive light, laughter is freeing and stress relieving, offering so much benefit that some experts recommend everyone get 15 to 20 minutes of laughter a day, much like you should exercise regularly and eat your vegetables.

Unfortunately, laughter tends to slow down as we get older, which is why one of the best recipes for laughter is to watch children or babies. If you need a laugh, check out the video below. It's living proof that laughter is contagious, as once you see this baby laughing, I bet you won't be able to keep a straight face.