Everybody loves a good laugh. Whether we find it at a comedy club, within the slapstick comedic stylings of Tom and Jerry or The Three Stooges, or in a good old-fashioned dorky pun, there’s something out there for everyone to laugh at, even if we can’t always collectively agree on what’s funny.
And there’s a lot to love about laughter. A good chuckle can stop the production of the stress hormone cortisol in its tracks, lower our blood pressure, and strengthen our bonds with the people around us. But what’s the deal with laughter? How and why do we do it? And is it really the best medicine?
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The Science of Humor
While the scientific study of humor may be fairly new, scientists and philosophers have been studying humor since at least ancient Greece. Aristotle and Plato both took a crack at explaining why we laugh, as did Sigmund Freud.
Currently, there are three prominent theories explaining the reason we laugh. However, modern academics typically draw from a mix of all three theories rather than believing one entirely over the other:
Superiority Theory: Laughing at Others’ Expense
Aristotle and Plato popularized this theory back in the days of ancient Greece. The idea is simple: We laugh because other people suffer. When we see other people go through a hard time, we feel superior to them in that moment, which amuses us.
It’s not a very flattering depiction of human behavior, but it’s tough to deny the humor in watching someone slip on a banana peel. Slapstick comedy wouldn’t exist if we didn’t derive some joy out of the suffering of others. The Germans even have a word for it: Schadenfreude.
Relief Theory: Laughing to Release Tension
The phrase “comic relief” has more truth to it than you may have thought! Laughter is a mental and physical process; our brains determine what’s funny, then our bodies respond with laughter, which is pretty physically demanding if you do it long enough! Laughing for extended periods of time can have the same effects of a daily workout. This, plus the flood of feel-good hormones like dopamine into your bloodstream, can provide relief from stress or even physical pain.
Incongruity Theory: Laughing at the Unexpected
Two fish are swimming in a tank. One turns to the other and asks, “Do you even know how to drive this thing?”
It might not be the funniest or most original example, but the Incongruity Theory explains why we laugh at jokes like this one. When we listen to a joke or story, we have certain expectations about what will happen at the end. If our expectations are derailed by something completely unexpected (the “tank” in my bad joke being a military tank instead of an aquatic one, for example), the surprise and confusion make us laugh.
The Benefits of Laughter
They say that laughter is the best medicine. It’s not entirely true—the pharmaceutical industry would be in serious trouble if it was—but laughter comes with a host of benefits for the mind and body. In fact, humor has such a positive influence on self-healing that it has its own branch of therapy. Laugh therapy, or laughter yoga, involves participants voluntarily laughing for prolonged periods of time. The thinking behind it is that the brain can’t tell the difference between genuine and forced laughter, so even fake laughter nets us the same positive health benefits that real laughter would.
What are those benefits, exactly? Here are just a few things a good laugh can do for you:
- Relieve stress: Laughing halts the production of stress-inducing hormones like cortisol and jumpstarts the production of feel-good hormones (or endorphins) like dopamine, which can reduce stress.
- Alleviate pain: Those same endorphins that help with stress levels can also help increase our tolerance to pain. Studies show that people who are exposed to funny videos have a higher tolerance for pain than those who aren’t.
- Reduce blood pressure: When we laugh, our arteries dilate and blood flows more easily through our bodies, which can reduce our blood pressure, potentially for as long as 24 hours after laughing.
- Boost immune system: Laughing triggers the production of T-cells in our body, which help us fight off infections. Studies suggest that laughing may even help hospital patients recover quicker.
- Strengthen social bonds: Laughing among friends or family can make us feel closer to them or help diffuse tension during an argument.
So, the next time you’re feeling down, try having a good, hearty laugh. If you’re struggling to laugh on your own, watching other people laugh is a sure-fire way to get you going. This Skype Laughter Chain video is hard to frown at.