Demetri Martin/Author
Source: Demetri Martin/Author

After a lifetime of laughter, from being exposed to the cheek pinching and high-pitched squeals of grandparents as a baby to the armpit farts of elementary school to Key & Peele, we should all be humor experts. But we've been to parties. We can only wish this was true.

I listen to a lot of public speakers and one thing they have in common is their attempt to make the audience laugh. It doesn't always work. At work meetings, there is always the 1-2 people that feel compelled to crack a joke every five minutes. It can be annoying. Then there is the one guy obsessed with puns who I hide from—it is often worth ingesting laxatives to head home early to avoid being exposed to these conversational dead ends:

If you think I'm average that's just mean

My loafers keep me warm and toasty

Don't trust Adams, they make up everything

Laughter is profoundly central to humanity. My 4-year-old spends 80% of her waking hours creating and seeking household laughter. She already knows.

This brings us to the science of laughter. There are some well-known facts about laughter.

  • laughter functions to create social bonds
  • laughing increases our short-term pain tolerance
  • a small dose of humor can increase immunological functioning
  • laughter during negotiations increases the likelihood of small concessions

All of these scientific findings are interesting but obvious. Here are a few less well-known discoveries.

1. The object of laughter is often mundane, uninteresting, and humorless. We rarely laugh when someone intentionally tries to humor us with jokes or stories. Dr. Robert Provine surreptitiously observed conversations in public places and painstakingly coded 1200 moments of laughter. What he found is that people rarely laugh at things that are objectively humorous. For instance, last week I listened to a student speak to a room of 30 people. Here are 4 instances when nearly the entire audience laughed:

  • to start the talk - "you already know me, so I'm going to jump right in"
  • the statement, "there are two systems of memory, VAM, and my friend SAM" (in case you want to get in on the joke - VAM stands for verbally accessible memory and SAM stands for sensory accessible memory)
  • the statement, "so, yet again, we didn't find any significant results"
  • a picture of a bunch of cats under the bolded word "Questions?"

Pay careful attention to what people around you laugh at and this becomes obvious. As Dr. Provine says, "laughter is more about relationships than humor." 

2. You might be surprised at who laughs the most. Outside of standup comedy, the speaker laughs 46% more often than the audience. What this means is that research that is limited to how audiences respond to humor are missing the action.

3. Women and men differ in laughter. When women are talking, men and women audiences laugh less than when men are talking. When women are speaking to an audience of one or more men, women laughed more than twice as much as the men. Scientists have shown that these sex differences emerge in kids as young as 6 years old. 

In a study of 3,745 personal ads in newspapers on April 28, 1996, women explicitly requested a man who is funny twice as often as labeling themselves as humorous. Men rarely included funny as a criterion for a potential mate but regularly claimed they were hilarious. 

Real example:

Any woman out there that likes a goofy guy? I like jokes, tricks and parties. I even work weekends as a clown for kids parties. Anyhow, I am 27, am tall, thin and have brown hair. I guess I am romantic, I do like making people happy. And I can juggle, so you won't get bored!

Laughing with another person might increase the likelihood of social bonds that are the precursor of stronger, healthier social relationships. The social benefits triggered by laughter appear to extend beyond a single social interaction to other parts of our life. We feel more positive. We feel more confident. We are more resilient. We get a small bump in physical health. And because of all these benefits, humans have a tendency to be quite open to laughing at things that are not funny, laugh at their own attempts at humor, and strategically use laughter to get someone in bed.

It is important to find new treatments for depression.

It is important to reduce bullying in schools and workplaces.

It is important to reduce the amount of intolerance and violence in the world.

It is important to create the conditions for people to find purpose in their lives.

But please, do not forget the peculiar, everyday behaviors that are endemic to the human condition. Yawning. Crying. Teasing. Lying. Moralizing. Complaining. The little moments are what bring the greatest joy and meaning in our lives; the little fissures, when reflected on and explored, can prevent collapses from occurring. 

Download a recent study from my lab on whether laughter leads to positive social interactions or if the directional arrow points the other way:

Kashdan, T.B.,Yarbro, J., McKnight, P.E., & Nezlek, J.B. (2014). Laughter with someone else leads to future social rewards: Temporal change using experience sampling methodology. Personality and Individual Differences, 58, 15-19.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His latest book is The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success and fulfillment. If you're interested in arranging a speaking engagement or workshop, visit toddkashdan.com

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