The Origins of Laughter

How to see life as a divine play and foster lightheartedness.

Posted Apr 07, 2014

In order to assure that everybody understands that we are just rehearsing, being as innocent as a puppy chewing up furniture, we must give clear signals. I know what my Great Dane did. She wagged her tail and tilted her cute head, impossible for me to take it any other way: she was just playing. How could I possibly be that angry with her? Yes, she was good, getting off easy every time.

We humans, on the other hand, have no tail to wag. Even if we did, like our monkey relatives, we would have needed that tail for other things, such as holding onto tree branches when harvesting apples or lantern posts when tipsy. According to neurobiologist Robert Provine, laughter developed from a ritualized panting sound of rowdy play triggered by tickle:

“In the great apes, laughter was emancipated from its original context in the labored breathing of play, the heavy panting now signaling playful intent or anticipation, even when the ongoing level of activity does not demand labored breathing.”*

As I laid out in the all important Chapter 12: “Lightheartedness” of my book, (, we can conclude from this that laugher evolved from the ape’s panting to the “sophisticated” human “Ha-Ha-Ha.” We convey the message that “all is good and well” quickly and effectively with upwards moving lips, quite different from the downward moving lips in an angry face. Scientists are not surprised to find that the main purpose of laugher is thus a social one, binding people together. **

What distinguishes us humans from apes is therefore not laughter per se, but what we laugh about that is what we consider play. We do not only laugh when we are physically tickled, but when we merely imagine to be tickled. From idea of play to verbal play and humor is but a small evolutionary step. We and only we humans have the ability to laugh at jokes and folly, at inconsistencies and rigidities in the flow of life. The philosopher Henri Bergson gives the example of a man who stumbles as he fails to adjust his gait to the road’s conditions:

“Through lack of elasticity, through absentmindedness and a kind of physical obstinacy, as a result, in fact, of rigidity or momentum, the muscles continued to perform the same movement when the circumstances of the case called for something else.”***

Laughter can therefore be used intentionally to point to rigidities and to bring about insight about these rigidities in ourselves, in others, and in circumstances. Life can be seen as a gigantic, never-ending play in which everything, including us, is supposed to flow. Instead of taking misfortune too seriously, for example, we can see it as a passing episode in this play, an opportunity to learn and to turn things around. When we notice that we are one of many players, we can rejoice, cooperate, and abstain from taking ourselves too seriously.

When life’s a play, it becomes apparent that it is our job to keep it enjoyable for all players. In fact, our happiness depends on our ability to keep it light and to invite others to laugh along with us as all players are interconnected, affecting each other. Embracing the interplay of everything, we become better players, and we also become thoroughly entertained.

Therefore, to foster your lightheartedness and invite happiness into your life, try to relate to life as a divine play. Sometimes this play can be very serious. It requires you to tend to important business with great skill, but without thinking of yourself as too important. Other times the play of life is a tickle. Laugh at rigidities, especially your own, correct them and play a game that is enjoyable for all. Actually, it’s the only way to play and be happy at the same time.

* Robert R. Provine, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (New York: Penguin, 2000), 124.


*** Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (London: MacMillian, 1999), 14.