Laughter is a basic human trait. Babies that are born blind and deaf will still laugh. Researchers have also observed laughter in chimps and rats; since laughing doesn’t involve the vocal cords, it’s one of the most animal-like sounds that humans can make. Throughout history people have suggested that laughing makes you feel better. Recent research has shown that laughing does produce positive physical changes in your brain, but that’s not the only benefit. Laughter has an important social function too.
Studies show that laughing decreases the levels of cortisol and epinephrine in the bloodstream. These are increased when you’re stressed; it’s no surprise that laughter has the opposite effect to stress. But laughing can also increase your tolerance of pain and a good sense of humour has been related to improved immunity. There’s no guarantee that being able to laugh will improve your health and decrease your stress levels, but there’s good evidence that laughing affects your body in positive ways.
The benefits of laughter are greater than feeling less stressed after watching a comedy on Netflix. Laughter is a social activity. You are thirty times more likely to laugh when you’re with others than when you’re alone. If you’ve ever seen a stand-up comedian perform live, you’ll recognise this: you’re more likely to start laughing and to keep on laughing if you’re surrounded by people who are doing the same thing. Watch the same comedian doing the same routine on TV by yourself and you’ll laugh much less.
What makes people laugh? Psychologists have found that in normal day-to-day interactions, it’s not jokes or funny events. Most laughter occurs during ordinary conversations. There’s a theory that a laugh is a modified version of a baby’s cry. A baby will cry when they’re uncomfortable or frightened; crying is a response to a threat. Laughing is a way of saying, “This could be a threat, but I realise that it’s not.” So if a woman says to her friend, “You’re an idiot,” and they both laugh, it’s a way of communicating that they both know the insult isn’t a threat to their relationship.
Laughing helps people to bond together. A group of people will often laugh at something that could be painful, such as someone falling over. The laughter not only serves as a way of saying, “This could be threat – it could happen to me – but it’s not because it happened to someone else,” it also helps all those who are laughing to feel that they have something in common. This is why people who are seen as humourless tend to be socially isolated. If you don’t join in with group laughter, you’re less likely to form strong social bonds. It’s also why people on posters and in ads are shown laughing: it makes you subconsciously identify with them.
What does this mean in practice? Firstly, if you want to have the health benefits of laughter, you’re more likely to get them if you’re with other people. If you’re feeling down, you might consider listening to a comedy podcast as a way of helping yourself feel better. There’s no reason that this won’t help, but you’re much less likely to laugh when you’re on your own, which means you’re much less likely to derive those immunity-boosting, stress-reducing benefits. Doing something enjoyable with other people, even if it’s not explicitly funny, is much more likely to get you laughing.
Secondly, laughter is about much more than physical health. Laughing with someone else increases your bond with them; laughter makes you feel part of a group. Going to a comedy club boosts your mood not only because you’re physically less stressed, but because you bonded with the rest of the audience in a shared experience. Laughter helps to meet your basic human need for connection with other people.
Laughter has proven physical effects on your body that are opposite to the effects of stress. Laughter also helps you to form and maintain social bonds with other people. Humans are social animals; you feel better when you’re part of a group. You can gain some benefits from laughing alone, but you’ll gain many more from laughing with others.