Friday, 1 March 2013

What is laughter for?

Laughter is a uniquely human trait, a form of communication which is universal - it doesn't depend on language or culture. Babies laugh long before they can speak, and laughing can promote social bonding and even improve your health.

Laughing is good for you.  Image by nosha.

Good feeling

One of the simplest but most effective forms of stress relief is to laugh. Laughter, like exercise, produces endorphins, the body's 'natural high' chemicals. It may be hard to laugh in difficult situations, but doing so has been linked to a greater resistance to stress and illness (Berk et al., 2001).

Even better is laughing together with close friends, as social support can also help to relieve stress. Laughter has been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Berk et al., 1989) and therefore impacts directly on the body, apparently 'switching off' the stress response.

What is laughter for?

The obvious question to ask, drawing on evolutionary psychology, is what did laughter evolve for? The universal nature of laughter suggests that it is a genetic trait, as does the finding that people laugh much more in childhood than adulthood. Could it have a social function, or be involved in making people more attractive?

Laughing may have evolved for a socially shared purpose. Freud linked it to a relief of repressed tension, Nietzsche to existential angst, but neither of these seem to provide much an an explanation of laughter in babies and children, or for why relaxed people laugh more!

Most likely is that it was a form of communication in our early evolution, perhaps before language fully developed. Dunbar et al. (2012) propose that it evolved to facilitate social bonding. Which makes a lot of sense, given the emphasis friendship groups still place on having fun together.

Laughter Boosting - 3 Ideas

  • Seek out humor - find time to watch comic films/videos, even if it's just a short clip or two on the internet. Read funny books, and follow people on Twitter that share jokes and wit.
  • Look for the joke - our cognitive biases can promote us to view things negatively, but it is possible to form a habit of viewing the funny side!
  • Seeking others who laugh - mirror neurons in the brain help us to feel empathy for others' emotions (Jabbi et al., 2007), so if you are surrounded by mirthful people, it will boost your own tendency to laugh too.

What are your views on the psychological benefits of 
laughter? Please share them in the comments.


Berk, L., Felten, D., Tan, S., Bittman, B., and Westengard, J. (2001). Modulation of neuroimmune parameters during the eustress of humorassociated mirthful laughter. Altern Ther Health Med, 7, 62–72; 74–76.

Berk, L., Tan, S., Fry, W., Napier, B., Lee, J. and Hubbard, R. (1989). Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter. Am J Med Sci, 298, 391–6.

Dunbar R. I. M., Baron, R., Frangou, A., Pearce, E., van Leeuwen, E.J.C., Stow, J., Partridge, G., MacDonald, I., Barra, V. and van Vugt, M. (2012). Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold. Proc. R. Soc. B, 279(1731), 1161-1167.

Jabbi, M., Swart, M., Keysers, C. (2007). Empathy for positive and negative emotions in the gustatory cortex. NeuroImage, 34(4), 1744–53.

This post is part of BlogFlash 2013 - 30 days of
flash blogging - using the prompt 'laughter'


  1. I'm sure you are right about laughter being a human trait, but as I watch the dogs wrestling, I'm certain they are expressing 'laughter' in their own naive way.

  2. Ah well maybe yes :D Some origins of laughter in other mammal species maybe. Don't see cats laughing, though.

  3. This is very interesting. I cannot wait to see how you work the rest of the prompts!

    And good choice of a photo there, heh. ;)

  4. Thanks :) I'm lucky because it's pretty easy to link psychology to just about anything :)

  5. I laugh so much that my sides hurt and my face aches. We may all have the ability to laugh but our sense of humour is individual which makes laughing even more special when you're laughing at the same thing.
    A very interesting post. Can't wait to see what you come up with for following prompts. X

    1. That sounds like a healthy sort of laugh.. better than a nervous laugh anyway :D

  6. Fascinating post! I love how you have approached the prompt!

    I saw your comment on my blog about length. Please don't worry: #BlogFlash is about being inspired. If you're inspired to write more, please do!

    1. Thanks Terri :) I'll see where the words take me.