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THE SURPRISING SCIENCE OF LAUGHTER

Windswept boy

You may have found yourself, at one time or another, unconsciously vocalising a repetitive sound in response to something or somebody that amused you – laughing.

Laughter is a universal response to a shared amusing experience, whether you are sharing it with other people, your computer, or a book. Anthropologically speaking, laughter is thought to have derived its evolutionary function from mutual relief in the moments after danger. Essentially, it was group relaxation therapy. This strange evolutionary development (although not so strange that there aren’t other laughing species – our monkey cousins being one example) is thought to have developed trust among the members of the group.

When we laugh, there are many changes that occur in our body. Our heart rate increases, along with our respiration rate, blood flow and skin conductance – our body’s ability to conduct electricity. It appears laughter is literally electrifying.

US neuroscientist Dr Robert Provine, in his 20+ years of study on the subject, has found that laughter is most often not a response to something funny, but an unconscious response we use to develop bonds with one another. A way of saying “I approve of you”, as it were. Laughter, in fact, occurs more often when it is associated with bonding, agreement, affection and emotional regulation than as a response to humour. Dr Provine also found in his research that we are actually 30 times more likely to laugh when with other people than while we’re alone. Seeing something funny on the computer usually elicits an appreciative nose exhalation, but if somebody else is present, the subconscious laughter response will almost certainly occur.

Laughter is great at helping us develop bonds with one another. It fills us with joy and warmth, but that’s not all, apparently: there are claims that laughing more makes us healthier.

A recent study has found a link between laughter and cardiovascular health. 2016 research from the University of Tokyo with a sample size of 20,900 people, discovered that those who reported laughing frequently were 1.21 times less likely to develop heart disease and 1.6 times less likely to suffer a stroke than those who did not report laughing at all in day to day life. One such theory behind these findings is that laughter is a great foil for stress, which has been shown to have a great impact on our cardiovascular health. Another argument being that the physiological mechanism behind laughter increases our blood flow and arterial compliance, working as a kind of cardiovascular exercise.

It has long been said the laughter is what keeps a relationship together, now we have evidence in favour of this ancient hypothesis. In 2015, Laura E. Kurtz Ph.D, a researcher from The University of North Carolina published research showing a link between frequent laughter and longer lasting relationships. In her study, 71 couples were interviewed on video about the time they first met. The couples that shared more laughter together during these interviews were also found to have stronger overall relationships, more closeness and higher levels of social support for one another. Kurtz puts it bluntly: “Couples who laugh more together tend to have higher-quality relationships”.An interesting development in the study had to do with gender. Women laughed on average more than males in the study and men were 73% more likely to make their partner laugh.

Recent literature on the health benefits of laughter has also engendered a new kind of therapy. Laughter therapy or “laughter yoga” as it has been coined involves group sessions, mostly outdoors, that try to induce forced laughter with eye contact and jokes. The forced laughter has been found to eventually turn into contagious and real laughter –a twist of the ‘faking it until we make it’ principle.

A 2014 Isafan University of Medical Sciences study found that practicing laughter yoga decreases self-reported stress and blood cortisol levels: a key physical indicator of stress. The laughter therapy was also found to be an effective antidote to depression, even as much as another favoured non-medication approach, physical sports participation. Decreases in reported depression were accompanied, not surprisingly, by increased feelings of life satisfaction over the study period. Earlier research in 2010, from the same university, found that laughter yoga lowered overall feelings of stress and anxiety among participants. Laughter yoga was also found to improve overall sleep quality and help combat insomnia among elderly patients in a 2011 Kungpook University, Korea study.

The old saying “laughter is the best medicine”, is clearly not without basis. Getting a few extra laughs in each day is an excellent way to maintain good health, a healthy mind and happy relationships. We use laughter to build friendships, support romances and a foster a healthy outlook on life. Laughter can help us cement and share our experiences with others even, strangely enough, when it is forced. As the great English comic actor and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin once said: “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.”

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