When I first read this, I paused and pondered. Its fuller implications intrigued me.
- Why do we laugh and what are its implications?
- How does it reflects on us?
- And most importantly what does it reveals about us?
Before we delve into the latter two more thought provoking questions here’s the literature review that accurately captures the answer to at least the first one. 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 way to bond. Cultural anthropologist Mahadev Apte asserts that’s laughter occurs when people are comfortable with one another, when they feel open and free. Dr John Morreall, Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute who spent over 30 years researching on humor and authored 5 books and 70 articles on the medical, psychological and social benefits of humor, advocates that (highlighted by me for emphasis):
- Play is not the opposite of work. Companies like Southwest Airlines which have put play and humor into their corporate culture have soared to the top of their industries.
- Physically and mentally, humor is the opposite of stress. Laughter lowers blood pressure, increases blood circulation, reduces muscle tension and pain, and boosts the immune system.
- Humor fosters mental flexibility, blocking negative emotions and allowing us to think our way through problems instead of feeling our way through them. It makes us more creative and better at coping with change.
- When we have a sense of humor about ourselves, we see ourselves more objectively, “as other people do,” to use the words of the old Candid Camera jingle. That makes us less defensive and more cooperative.
- Sharing humor is essential to building and maintaining teams. It’s a kind of emotional intelligence.
- Humor serves as a social lubricant. It improves most kinds of communication, especially potentially threatening messages such as warning, evaluating, criticizing, and saying no. With humor we can complain without bitching.
- Because humor short-circuits conflict, it is useful in coping with difficult people.
- Not all humor is positive. We need to avoid divisive humor such as sarcasm and sexist humor.
Robert R. Provine, a neuroscientist and Professor of Psychology at University of Maryland, who studied 2000 cases of natural laughter over a period of 10 years, asserts that laughter is part of the universal human vocabulary. All members of the human species understand it. Unlike English or French or Swahili, we don’t have to learn to speak it. We’re born with the capacity to laugh.
One of the remarkable things about laughter is that it occurs unconsciously. You don’t decide to do it. While we can consciously inhibit it, we don’t consciously produce laughter. That’s why it’s very hard to laugh on command or to fake laughter. (Don’t take my word for it: Ask a friend to laugh on the spot.)
Laughter provides powerful, uncensored insights into our unconscious. It simply bubbles up from within us in certain situations.Very little is known about the specific brain mechanisms responsible for laughter. But we do know that laughter is triggered by many sensations and thoughts, and that it activates many parts of the body.
We also know that laughter is a message that we send to other people. We know this because we rarely laugh when we are alone (we laugh to ourselves even less than we talk to ourselves).
Laughter is social and contagious. We laugh at the sound of laughter itself. That’s why the Tickle Me Elmo doll is such a success — it makes us laugh and smile.
(Another blog entry on the role of mimetic in humor coming up)
Typically theories about why we laugh our summarized as follow:
- Superiority Theory: suggested by Plato, Aristotle and Hobbes. We laugh to express our superiority over others. According to Hobbes: “the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminence in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” In easier English it means we laugh at other’s expense when we feel better off than them.
- Relief theory: Sigmund Freud in “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious” suggests humor from a joke is a way humans outwardly funnel energy from sexual repression and pent up emotions.Simply put, things which we cannot say normally we pass it on as ‘just a joke’. In this way we are relieved.
- Incongruity theory: Immanuel Kant and Sǿren Kierkegaard believed that finding something funny revolves around derailed expectations.This means humor arises when we are taken by surprise at an unexpected denouement.To add on context, humor traditionally revolved around sharp wit rather than comedy though many times they both have been intertwined.
Based on this, we laugh for various reasons. To associate with others, for better social bonding, to alleviate our mood. But what it reflects on us is a key question. The things we find funny reveal insights into how we perceive and interpret situations.It shows how intricately and accurately we’ve understood the situation and our laughter is our reflection and feedback on it. So essentially its a feedback that we unconsciously give to our own selves. By laughing we show others what we are and how we appraise ourselves in light of certain situation and issues. Sometimes our laughter also reveal our tolerance for ambiguity and our ability to process complexity. We may laugh not fully understanding the ‘joke’ and build on it from our own past experience or extrapolate it from a lens of a different perspective. It shows our mindset and how we connect dots. That in turn is a reflection of our psyche, personality -character.Our humor shows how sensitive we are and what is our understanding of some critical affairs. Laughing at awkward moment demonstrates our defense mechanism to counter embarrassment and discloses our buttons-stimuli that trigger unproportional reaction to certain things.This indicates how we perceive things and unconsciously process information. Laughter fits signify our ability to walk out of situations. The more we keep laughing, the more difficult it is to divert our mind from something grasping. Our laughter signals our self control over our consciousness and our ability to give it an order. With whom we choose to laugh more shows with whom we want more to be with.How much we try to laugh shows how dearly we want to be associated with them. These people whom we choose to be with reflect our perceived self image and what is our ‘type’.Therefore our laughter shows how we try to alter group dynamics and the humor we choose to employ reveal what sort of a person we are.How easily can someone make us laugh represents how quickly we are willing to buy their side of story and be convinced by them. This sums up that laughing give us insights into ourselves that we didn’t know existed.