The evidence is patchy, perhaps because we all want to believe that a good laugh really is the best medicine. Various studies have indicated that laughing can reduce production of the stress hormone cortisol and lowers strain on the heart. It also lowers blood sugar (which is good for diabetics), promotes blood flow and boosts our immune system. One study claimed that in terms of cardio-vascular exercise, a minute’s laughter was the equivalent of 10 minutes on a rowing machine.
As a result, laughter therapy is now regularly deployed, particularly with young children where the visit of a clown before major surgery has proved very effective in reducing anxiety. Margaret Stuber, a Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA has found that when children watched funny videos while their hands were in iced water, they could tolerate pain better and assessed the experience as less unpleasant. They also had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
The idea that laughter is therapeutic was popularized by Norman Cousins in a 1976 article published in The New England Journal of Medicine, and expanded into a book. In it, Cousins describes his affliction with a painful and life-threatening degenerative disease (ankylosing spondylitis), which he successfully treated with vitamin C, the Marx Brothers, and episodes from the old television series Candid Camera.
I came into this world and everyone was laughing as I was crying. I leave the world and everyone is crying and I am laughing.
During conversations most laughter happens after banal comments, not funny ones.
Laughing is a sign of aggression in parrots.
The word 'agelastic' means 'without laughter'. Other words derived from the Greek gelos (laughter), are 'gelastic' (gelastic seizure is a form of epilepsy characterised by bursts of pathological laughter) and 'misogelastic' (actually hating laughter).
Well-known agelasts include Isaac Newton (who is supposed to have laughed once in his life, when someone asked him what was the point of studying Euclid). Others include Stalin, Jonathan Swift, W.E. Gladstone, and Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch rationalist and lens grinder (who is said only to have laughed when watching spiders fight to the death). The Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, on the other hand, died laughing.
In Paradise Lost, one of the differences between Heaven before and after the Day of Judgement is that there won’t be any laughter at the End of Days; there will be joy and delight (about the fate of the damned, amongst other things) but no need for laughter.
The animal rights group PETA claims that cows can suffer humiliation if people laugh at them.
People laugh more (by almost 50%) when they’re doing the talking than when someone else is talking.
The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.
Robert Provine, a behavioural neurobiologist from the University of Maryland, studies male/female laughter patterns ‘in the wild’ on urban safaris to shopping malls and the student union and has documented 1,200 'laugh episodes'.
He concludes that women laugh more than men, and that both men and women laugh less at women than they do at men. He says 'the limited cross-cultural evidence suggests that males are the leading humor producers and that females are the leading laughers.' These differences are already present by the time that joking first appears, which is around six years of age.
He found that women laughed much more often than the men they were talking to. As he says, 'Female speakers are enthusiastic laughers whoever their audience may be... Male speakers are pickier, laughing more when conversing with their male friends than with an audience of females. The least amount of speaker laughter occurred when males were conversing with females.'
He also found that people who are speaking laugh 46% more than people who are listening, and that people laughed about 30 times as much when they were around others than when they were alone. This supports the theory that the function of laughter is primarily social.
Our lack of control of the laughter impulse means it can do also do us harm, triggering asthma attacks, incontinence and contributing to hernias and ulcers. The Romans and the Chinese have both used tickling as a form of torture. The former specialised in a particularly unpleasant practice called ‘Goat's tongue’ in which the suspended victim’s feet were covered in salt and then goats were encouraged to lick them.
In 1962 in the Bukoba district of Tanzania a spontaneous laughter epidemic spread among school children and led to the temporary closure of 14 secondary schools. The laughter spread through families and friends– the closer the relationship, the more likely you were to become ‘infected’.
Spontaneous laughter originates in the very oldest part of our brain stem, which means we can’t consciously control it. Our ability to laugh probably predates our ability to speak by hundreds of thousands of years. It is also hard-wired rather than learnt behaviour – people who are both deaf and blind still laugh.
Gelotologists (people who study laughter) suggest that laughter has less to do with self-expression than triggering a positive feeling in others, promoting a sense of group cohesion. This might have helped us survive as a species.
There are some things so serious you have to laugh at them.
In the 16th century, French actors hired rieurs (laughers) and chatouilleurs (ticklers) to sit in the audience and cheer everyone up.
When a Navajo baby laughs aloud for the first time, the family throws a party. The person who made the baby laugh buys the food.
According to Navajo tradition, you should not laugh when someone farts because you will get wrinkles immediately.