Why We Laugh at Others on April Fool's Day

Find out why laughing at the expense of others brings us so much pleasure.

Posted Apr 01, 2016

Today is April Fool’s Day, when jokes, pranks, and hoaxes become a standard form of human interaction. Have you pranked or been pranked? Did you laugh? I hope so because it’s good to laugh, good for stress relief, reduced strain on the heart, and even some calorie loss.

But surely laughing at the expense of a fool is not a very nice thing to do? Surely Schadenfreude, as the Germans call joy at someone else’s misery, is something to be discouraged, and certainly not given its own day of celebration? Well, it is certainly a fact that humans have a tendency to rejoice at the failures of others. Indeed, a large body of experimental research demonstrates that we experience Schadenfreude in almost every situation: at work when our workmates are fired, when we see the opposite team lose in a football match, or at university when a have-it-all classmate fails their exams.

Are we all just mean then, or is there another reason why we derive pleasure from others’ misfortunes? Many of the researchers examining this phenomenon explain it through the prism of the Social Comparison Theory, which posits that our self-esteem depends on our social context and so others’ falling low makes us feel superior. This is perhaps why people with low self-esteem have been shown to be more susceptible to Schadenfreude than those with high self-regard, who do not need to belittle others to feel better about themselves.

The most recent research, however, demonstrates that Schadenfreude might be more than just a socially formed emotion, but rather a part of human biology. A brain-scanning study showed that Schadenfreude activates brain regions associated with feelings of pleasure, while another study suggested that the feeling of Schadenfreude might be associated with the production of oxytocin – the hormone released in pleasurable acts of social bonding, such as kissing, sex, and child-caring.

So rather than denouncing April Fool’s Days, celebrate its potential benefits. The laughter might not only make you healthier, but more creative too. Who cannot still marvel at the creativity and utter brilliance of the BBC’s April Fool’s Day prank from 1957, when they broadcast news on a Swiss family harvesting spaghetti from the family "spaghetti tree"?

I also invite you to use the experience of being pranked as an invaluable opportunity to learn how to laugh at yourself and the world around you. Getting that extra bit of distance from your everyday, ‘serious’ life will serve you well when dealing with daily problems. So take being laughed at in good spirit, safe in the knowledge that you are making others happy in the process. Happy April Fool’s Day folks.

About the Author

Paul Dolan Ph.D., is a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics and the author of Happiness by Design.

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