Did you know we’ve been laughing for ten million years? It started back when we were apes, of course. That’s when laughter itself was “born.” There’s a reason why laughter feels so good, so primal. And the more we learn about it, the more we understand why we need a good laugh—probably more often than we’ve been getting.
The Quarter Review of Biology recently published a study that identified two kinds of laughter: spontaneous and strategic. Spontaneous laughter is the natural kind driven by stimulus around you, while strategic laughter is used “in interaction to influence others or modulate one’s own physiology,” said Matthew Gervais, lead author of the study and a researcher in the Evolutionary Studies Program at Binghamton University in New York.
Strategic laughter, which the researchers call the “dark side of laughter,” is the kind we use intentionally, and can sometimes be cruel. Think Andrew Dice Clay, or the cool kids who laughed when you walked into fifth grade on the first day of school wearing the sweater your mom made you. Spontaneous laughter, on the other hand, arises out of the bonding rituals of our primate ancestors. Think being tickled or laughing out loud while alone watching YouTube videos of cats getting stuck in jars. Marina Davila Ross, a psychologist at Portsmouth University, believes laughter emerged about ten million years ago in the play of apes. Perhaps even in the tickling of baby apes. Who knew back then that baby apes being tickled would be an important evolutionary link to the origin of Ellen DeGeneres?
In teaching and practicing laughter yoga, I aim for my laughter to be the spontaneous kind. In this form of yoga, (the word yoga itself can mean “union with the breath,” which is reminiscent of laughter), we encourage one another to giggle through exercises designed to create spontaneous laughter. I don’t do it perfectly; and in fact in my classes, sometimes I encourage a certain kind of strategic laughter to create a bridge to real, spontaneous laughter.
Why practice spontaneous laughter? There have been numerous studies about all its benefits, for our health and our relationships. An Oxford University study even suggests that laughter has provided primates with an evolutionary advantage.
Social laughter is essentially “grooming, at a distance” and it fosters closeness among primates the way apes bond by picking bugs off each other, Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar says in an article in The New York Times. Even Freud talks about this in his book Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. But that book is annoying and sexist.
Anyways, laughter not only helps us bond with others, but also makes us more resilient. The simple muscular exertions involved in laughing—specifically the convulsive movements of the belly—trigger endorphins that increase our resistance to pain, Dunbar found.
Dunbar’s study, published in the proceedings of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences, subjected volunteers to watching various videos. Some watched “The Simpsons,” (who knew The Simpsons were popular in England?), Eddie Izzard routines, and clips of other kinds of comedy. A control group watched footage considered “feel-good,” but not funny, like nature programs. A second control group was subjected to “neutral” (boring) golf and pet training videos. All participants were monitored for laughter during the shows. The participants who laughed (presumably those in the comedy video group—unless nature videos are getting funnier) proved better able to withstand physical pain in resistance tests administered after they watched the videos. And in my research, I’ve found studies which state that we experience emotional pain similarly to physical pain. Because of this, I would submit that laughter affects emotional pain similarly.
This study found that laughter, not just a general sense of well-being, is key to the endorphin response and pain relief. For this reason, Dunbar believes laughter has played an important role in the social evolution of primates. And I would argue that it has played an important role in our evolution as humans as well. In fact, I believe that laughter, and its counterpart, crying (during which toxins and stress hormones exit the body through tears), fulfill important biological needs that support us and propel us forward as a species, just as food, sleep and sex do.
So where does that leave us today? Are we laughing enough to experience all the benefits our ape ancestors did when they first discovered this natural high? I find that people who aren’t getting enough laughter often feel weighed down by all the seriousness of adult life.
And if it’s been missing for a long time, laughter needs to be practiced to become part of one’s life. Don’t feel discouraged if it takes time to remember how to laugh spontaneously. It’s still a practice for me. Laughter Yoga helps. Tickling helps. Watching TV blooper reels helps. Seeing actors who can’t stop laughing, even when they’re supposed to be serious, somehow makes me burst out laughing too. I’m even starting to laugh at stand-up comedy again, after years of feeling jealous while watching other comedians, after hearing a great joke they’d written. I would find myself slapping the table with a straight face, saying “that’s funny” in a deadpan tone, and I realized that jealousy had drained the laughter out of me.
Once upon a time, Charlie Chaplin said, “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.” Like singing, dancing, and other physical activities, shared laughter strengthens group bonds. A laugh today may play tonic to your pain, and shared giggling echoes age-old evolutionary rewards. So find whatever truly, madly, deeply tickles your funny bone, and laugh it up!