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Laughter doesn’t actually cure anything – it’s used as an addition to standard health care, not a replacement. killerturnip, CC BY-NC-ND

The lowdown on laughter: from boosting immunity to releasing tension

Laughter is supposedly the best medicine – which is lucky because I’m planning on staying up late, drinking, smoking and eating like mad throughout the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

I’d better choose my shows wisely though, because I’m aiming for a net neutral health effect by the end. If a comedian lets me down, it could take years off my life.

Laughter has been claimed to do pretty much everything, from reducing stress to helping cure cancer. Most major children’s hospitals have clown doctors cheering up kids. There is a special brand of yoga – Hasyayoga – that incorporates laughter. We have laughter clubs that espouse the health benefits of laughing as an exercise – no jokes, just spontaneous mirth.

Australia even has a humour foundation to promote the health benefits of laughter. Oh, and there’s a World Laughter Day: the first Sunday of May.

Laughter and health

Gelatology is the study of laughter. Laughter health fanatics have run studies on dozens of medical conditions. Overall, the evidence is pretty slim. Laughter can probably reduce the experience of pain. It can probably boost immunity. It may help relieve depression and stress, and it seems to ease the challenges of being sick, especially when in hospital.

But it doesn’t actually cure anything – in every case it’s used an addition to standard care, not a replacement. Still, the good news is that laughter doesn’t seem to have any side effects (except maybe mild incontinence when over-indulging).

Why do we laugh?

No one knows. Laughter is assumed to have some sort of evolutionary benefit. It’s a form of social communication, especially in romantic situations.

Women are more likely to look for a sense of humour in dating ads. MollySVH, CC BY

Women laugh the most and men tell the most jokes. In dating ads, women are more likely to say they seek a good sense of humour and men more likely to claim they have one. We also feel good when we laugh, and this seems to help learning, especially for kids. Laughter also plays a role in bringing people together and making groups bond.

Laughter is contagious – we laugh 30 times more in social situations than when alone. This is why TV has laugh tracks.

Hogan’s Heroes was originally tested before it aired in 1965 with and without laugh tracks. The version without laughter bombed, and laugh tracks became the norm thereafter.

What makes us laugh?

We laugh the most at our own jokes and gags – on average the speaker laughs 50 per cent more than their audience in everyday conversations. 80 per cent of laughter comes from wise cracks and comments; only 20 per cent from full-blown jokes.

The elements of a good joke have been debated for centuries. Jokes seem to include surprise and shock; they lead us down a familiar path and then take an unexpected turn. Taste is an important factor – we all laugh at slightly different things. So is culture: the Brits like the dry and absurd, the Yanks seem to prefer slightly aggressive humour, and as for Aussies, ours is dry, full of extremes, anti-authoritarian, self-mocking and ironic (that last bit is a direct quote from an Australian government website.)

Books have been written on the mysteries of a good joke, but if you’re really curious watch the 2005 movie The Aristocrats – in which 100 comedians tell and discuss the same joke.

Who laughs?

Apparently we all do. We start to smile within a few weeks of being born, initially just with the lower part of our face. This gradually extends to the whole face, and we start to laugh at around 3 or 4 months old. We continue until we die.

We’re not alone in laughing – other primates do it too – chimps, gorillas and orangutans, although theirs has different vocal qualities. There is some evidence they crack jokes too.

Bonobos, like other primates, start laughing as babies.

How do we laugh?

We laugh in various ways according to the situation and the gag. There are different intensities – we chuckle, titter, cackle, chortle and belly laugh. Sometimes we’re open about our laughter and sometimes we snicker more privately.

Laughter isn’t only about expressing joy. Sometimes we laugh out of embarrassment, sometimes from confusion, sometimes out of courtesy, and sometimes from nervousness.

In the evil laugh, we celebrate the misfortune of others. Laughter can also express our personality – the frivolous laugh, or the laugh of the loud and in-your-face extrovert versus the shy, withdrawn laugh of the introvert.

Laughter seems to help learning, especially for children. Big Eyed Sol, CC BY-ND

Some people have a particular skill for the superior laugh. Does he who laughs last, laugh loudest?

Is there a wrong time to laugh?

We’re often tempted to laugh in serious situations or at inappropriate times. I once cracked a joke minutes after reviewing a dying patient, not realising his grieving family we’re standing right behind me.

I still cringe at the memory. Fortunately the family were gracious and understood I was relieving my tension. I’ve rarely felt so foolish.

In the end, laughter is an enigma best enjoyed rather than studied. It might be good for our health, but that’s not the best reason to do it. It’s fun and sexy and brings people together.

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