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It’s one of our human instincts, and those of us who are lucky do it often, or at least hear it every day. Alongside sneezing, coughing, and yawning, laughter is something we do unconsciously. We are born with the ability to do it; we laugh before we even learn to speak. It doesn’t matter what language we speak, people of all nationalities laugh. Laughter is something we remember and something we love to do. 

Have you tried laughing on cue? It’s hard and never sounds genuine. And how hard is it to stop ourselves laughing at inappropriate moments. Try it. It’s tough. 

So why do we laugh?

Given it’s such a prevalent emotion, there’s little understanding about why we actually do it. We know it bonds people together, it’s something we share, it’s an ice-breaker and acts as a release of pent up feelings too. Think of all the times you’ve laughed out of sheer relief at something, for example. We value laughter and seek it out in others. No one wants to spend their life with someone with no sense of humor, for example. Look at all those dating sites. How many people on them say they have a good “sense of humor” or are looking for someone with the same quality? 

Now, New York University clinical assistant professor, Lawrence Ian Reed Ph.D. gave a talk last month about why we laugh. It was entitled “What’s So Funny, the Science of Humor and Laughter.” Dr. Reed studies the facial expression of emotion.

Dr. Reed isn’t alone. Scientists, psychologists, and neuroscientists have long tried to understand why we laugh and what it means. In 2013, psychologist Christian Jarrett wrote that scientists still struggle to understand the meaning of laughter.  Laughter cannot be explained away simply. One event can evoke wild laughter in one person and a wry smile in another, we laugh at words, we laugh at a picture, or a TV show or play. We even laugh at others misfortunes. Whatever our reasons for laughing, it’s hard to fake and sometimes hard to stop. There’s also a theory that using canned laughter on TV shows increases the amount that people think something is funny. 

The history

One thing we can do is trace laughter back not only to primates but ancient Greece. Plato wrote in The Republic (388e) that it is an emotion that quashes self-control. His advice for guardians of the state was to avoid laughter, writing that “for ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction.” Which is presumably why we rarely see our politicians laughing!

In a 1999 study by Robert Provine Ph.D., he and his students studied more than 2,000 cases of “naturally occurring laughter.” What they discovered was that most laughter does not come from jokes. People laugh because laughter is social glue. It binds our relationships and makes us feel closer to the person we are laughing with.  

So do men and women laugh the same?

Back to Dr. Reed. He says not. In his talk, he explained that “it turns out that women laugh more than men do.” Also, Dr. Reed says men try harder to get more laughs than women. That doesn’t make them funnier, however! “It probably doesn’t mean that; it means that women laugh more when there are men around.” Could this be because women like men who make them laugh, or could it be that laughter is a way of expressing sexual attraction? So even if a guy’s jokes aren’t funny, but you think he’s attractive, you’ll laugh? 

Anything else?

Reed’s favorite theory, however, is the Encryption Theory of laughter. In other words, intentionally produced humor is “a form of communication that evolved to broadcast information about the self and to obtain knowledge about others by honestly signaling the fact of shared common knowledge.” For example, you are walking in the street and see a person walking around wearing a funny t-shirt. You catch the eye of someone who understands the same thing, and you share laughter. 

However, we don’t need humor just to demonstrate attraction and to share unspoken communication. It’s often the humor in situations, even terrible ones, that acts as a release. In a Stanford University essay by John Morreall, 2012, on the Philosophy of Humor, the article describes Freud’s theory as: “Psychic energy that people release when they laugh is the energy that would have repressed emotions that are being expressed as the person laughs.” 

We need laughter not just to demonstrate attraction, but to distract us from real life. An editorial in the American Journal of Psychology in 1907 said that humor’s “largest function is to detach us from our world of good and evil, loss and gain, and to enable us to see it in proper perspective.” It frees us from vanity, on the one hand, and from pessimism on the other, by keeping us larger than what we do, and greater than what can happen to us.”

All in all

In other words, laughter is an incredibly sophisticated form of communication between people. It’s evolved to be so and can comfort us during dark periods of history and time. 

Whatever our reasons for laughter, it’s inevitable that no one can quite agree on why we do it. Maybe there’s an argument for saying that the less we understand something, the more fun it can be!