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How and Why They Make Us Laugh

The psychology and biology of humor

The recent sad deaths of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers sparked a communal outpouring of grief, as well as critical discussions about topics like addiction, vulgarity, and psychiatric troubles. We love the people who make us laugh and help keep the darkness at bay. Yet, they can’t help but remind us that comedy is not the opposite of darkness, but its natural bedfellow. Pain makes laughter necessary; laughter makes pain tolerable. Even in the darkest depths, while both were prisoners in Auschwitz, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl gave himself and a depressed colleague a homework assignment to think of a funny story every day. Sometimes, he reported, prisoners spontaneously put together a makeshift cabaret show, clowning around and telling stories. Fellow inmates crowded into the room, even if it meant missing meager food rations being distributed at the same time.

And yet, humor does not necessarily distract us from our fears. Often, it unexpectedly reminds us of them. When George Burns quipped at age 100 that restaurants made him pay up front for a 3-minute egg, he made us smile by letting death into the room. Similarly, English royal court jesters were allowed, and even expected, to criticize their kings as long they made them laugh in the process.

Laughter is good not only for the soul, but for the body, too, given its association with lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Studies have also found that medical patients watching a comedy video required less pain medication than patients watching a neutral video. In psychologist Robin Dunbar’s studies at Oxford, laughing at a funny movie helped subjects tolerate more intense pain—a frozen vacuum wine cooler sleeve touching their skin, or a too-tight blood pressure cuff around their arms—and for longer periods of time. Other researchers have found laughter to be associated with increased immune functioning, such as greater natural killer cell activity.

Valuing humor is not a modern idea. It goes back millennia. The Romans worshipped Hilaritas, the goddess of rejoicing and good humor. They wrote joke books, dating back at least to the 4th or 5th century A.D. Romans believed good humor was not only a private virtue, but also a public one, and people were encouraged to inspire others’ good humor with their own. A millennium later, Joan Rivers seemed to channel this notion on the television show, Louie, when she described the comic’s work as no less than a calling.

One example from the most famous known Roman joke book, Philogelos (“Lover of Laughter”), reminds us that the fascinating relationship between funny and tragic is very old too: A pedant was on a sea voyage when a big storm blew, causing his slaves to weep in terror. “Don’t cry,” he consoled them. “I have freed you all in my will!” Note how much negativity is required for this joke to work—slavery, terror, and death by drowning. We can see why comedians can be such polarizing figures. The joke may be funny to some, but probably not to families of drowning victims or former slaves. A joke is funny to all except the one who is its butt. And yet a comic needs to risk offending if he or she is going to make at least some of us laugh.

Sometimes, though, it is appealing to be the butt of the joke, too. Kings surrounded themselves with court jesters to entertain them, often by telling uncomfortable, and otherwise forbidden, truths. Today, it is considered an honor to be the “victim” of a Friar’s Club roast. Today, court jesters still exist, in the guise of political satirists, only they ply their trade to the court of public opinion.

Sigmund Freud thought one of humor’s purposes was to trick the unconscious part of the mind into expressing taboo thoughts and feelings. Journalist Michael Kinsley suggested something similar when he coined the word gaffe to describe what happens when a politician accidentally tells the truth.

How does humor make nasty truths more tolerable, serving as the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down?

One biological theory is that laughter increases our level of endorphins in much the same way exercise does. These opiate-like substances in our brains help control pain, whether emotional or physical, and increase pleasure. Another —the “Relief Theory”—suggests humor and laughter help release nervous energy. Comedian Lewis Black described the process as “music with tension release.”

More generally, that release of tension allows comedy to help us change our perspective on life’s most unpleasant moments, even if (or most especially if) we can’t change them. Humor helped change the way Frankl experienced his relentless miseries in a death; he couldn’t change his circumstances, but he could exert some control by laughing at them.

This change in perspective also works in the opposite way. Distance can help us see the humor and absurdity in otherwise hopeless situations. That’s why, after the fact, terrible experiences make for great stories. “Look upon life as a disinterested spectator,” wrote French philosopher Henri Bergson in his 1901 treatise, Laughter, “many a drama will turn into a comedy.”

Though they sometimes make us cry, comedians who make us laugh help us control the uncontrollable and tolerate the intolerable in life. That’s why we love them. And why we miss them so terribly when they’re gone.

Adapted from Mindy Greenstein's (age 51) and Jimmie Holland's (age 86) new book about the positive aspects of aging, from midlife through older age: Lighter as We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging, published by Oxford University Press.