Generally, laughter is perceived as a positive behavior. It is related to a number of beneficial effects. Among humans, laughter is often expressed as early in infants who are 4 months old. At this time, it usually occurs in response to the behavior of the caregiver (e.g., mother). As the child grows older, the child begins to engage in behaviors intended to evoke laughter in others. It is believed that the purpose of this developmental process is to establish social bonding in addition to gaining feedback as to what types of behavior should be reinforced (e.g., laughter from mother) or discouraged (e.g., serious look or punishment from mother).

The social importance of laughter is that it’s a form of communication to others. Indeed, most laughter occurs when we are actually in social situations or are envisioning ourselves in them. Laughter also has a contagious aspect to it, and it encourages others to laugh as well.

Aside from promoting social bonding, why would we want to laugh? Research has found that social laughing has beneficial physical effects. Some of these include:

  • Activating the release of endogenous opiates which decrease feelings of pain and have a relaxing effect
  • Decreasing the production of stress hormones, like cortisol
  • Cardiovascular effects, such as reducing artery inflammation, increasing blood flow, and lowering the risk of myocardial infarction
  • Respiration benefits by improving lung function

The psychological benefits of laughter include:

  • Reducing a number of negative emotions, such as stress, anxiety, tension, embarrassment, worry, frustration, hostility, and anger
  • Acting as a coping mechanism for negative or painful situations (e.g., for individuals whose work requires them to deal with terrible events or injuries—physician, nurse, firefighter, soldier)
  • Reduces interpersonal tension (e.g., “breaks the ice,” nervous laughter).

What makes us laugh? Usually, the stimulus is something silly or negative (e.g., watching puppies play, violating a rule, poking fun at someone). It’s also common for people to find humor in tragedies; in this respect, laughter serves as a coping mechanism.

Some people intentionally set themselves up to be the target of the laughter. Many professional comedians have been quite successful by recounting all the ways they have acted foolishly. The trick to capturing the audience’s attention and favorable review is if they can identify with the comedian. Many people do laugh at themselves, however, there’s a limit to self ridicule—beyond which it becomes pathetic and no longer funny. In general, too much self deprecation is seldom beneficial personally and socially.

When the laughter is directed at others, it’s important that the generated laughter not be aggressive and used to hurt another person. Sometimes people laugh for the purpose of mocking, humiliating, or bulling another. In such instances, the laughter is not performed in “good fun," but at the expense of an individual who will be hurt by it. In these instances, the “laugher’s” behavior is not harmless, but malicious. In fact, the laugher in such situations can be viewed as a sadistic person who enjoys hurting others.

Some people are particularly sensitive and have a fear of being laughed at or made to appear ridiculous. This fear has been identified as “gelotophobia.” Although it isn’t always pleasant to be the object of the joke, the effect this has on us ranges across individuals. For those who are highly gelotophobic, their concern about their performance or how they come across to others may result in

  • Anxiety, shame 
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Low self esteem

So then how do you know if laughter in a certain situation will produce a positive or negative result? One factor to bear in mind is knowing how the target of the laughter will feel. Ultimately, very little good comes from intentionally hurting people who are vulnerable. But what about laughing in social situations where the target is not present (e.g., watching a television show, hearing a joke) or doesn’t mind? Even in such cases, laughing can sometimes have a negative result if you have no awareness how the others who are present will react (e.g., laughing at a raunchy joke on a first date). 

The saying, “Are you laughing with me or at me?” may be an important one to consider. The benefits of laughter are many, but in some situations, laughter can “cut like a knife.” Be careful. 

References

Nikopoulos, J. (2017). The stability of humor. Humor, 30, 1-21.DOI:https://doi.org/10.1515/humor-2016-0062

Woodbury-Farina, M. A., & Antongiorgi, J. L. (2014). Humor. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 37, 561-578. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psc.2014.08.

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