You probably laugh – or at least chuckle – at something you find amusing fairly often, but how much do you really know about laughter and humour? RD questioned six experts – a neuroscientist, two psychologists, a humour researcher, a sociologist, and a laughter yoga teacher – to give us the lowdown on laughter.
Reader’s Digest: What’s the oldest joke in the world?
We can’t know the oldest joke in the world because it would have existed prior to writing, as Christie Davies, professor of sociology at the University of Reading in the UK, points out. The oldest joke book that’s been found so far, the Greek Philogelos (“Laughter-Lover”) dates from the 4th century AD, although the jokes date from an earlier time. According to psychologist Steve Wilson, director of National Humor Month (April in the US), it contains 265 jokes, including this zinger: “‘A man goes to the barber. The barber asks how he would like his hair cut. The man replies, ‘Silently.’”
RD: Why are “funny” cat videos so much more popular than, say, dog videos?
The answer to this question may lie in what many people perceive as the inherent dark side in their feline friends. “There was one meme where a kitten looked into a camera, with the caption saying that it’s thinking about killing you,” recalls Scott Weems, cognitive neuroscientist and author. “It comes down to conflict; we’re not sure what to make of cats. On one hand, they’re terribly cute. On the other, they’re just a handful of generations from hunting you down on the African savannah. So, maybe they do think about murdering us all day. That, I contend, is funny.”
RD: Can animals laugh?
As it turns out, there’s a quite a bit of funny business going on in the animal kingdom. Not only do apes and dogs laugh, says Weems, but so do rats. And what do rats find so funny? Tickling! According to Weems, the best way to get a rat to laugh is to tickle it. “Just use your fingers to tickle the rat’s belly like you might with a baby,” he says.
RD: Do babies have a sense of humour?
Weems believes they have a rich sense of humour, albeit different from an adult’s. “Take peek-a-boo as an example. Babies love it. That’s because there’s an age when seeing something disappear is a little frightening. That jolt is followed by relief when we figure out that things remain there even if we don’t see them. That surprise and relief, to a baby at least, is a lot like a great stand-up routine for an adult. In that way, humour says a lot about the complexity of our thinking.” And according to Rod Martin, professor of psychology at the Western University in Ontario, Canada, that sense of humour starts developing as early as five months, right about when we begin to laugh.
RD: Do some children fail to develop a sense of humour to carry into adulthood?
Martin believes that while technically everyone is born without a sense of humour, as we develop cognitively and socially, humour and laughter begin to emerge spontaneously. “Of course, some children (like adults) tend to be more serious, quiet, and less likely to laugh frequently, but this doesn’t mean they don’t have an appreciation for humour.” And according to Wilson, there’s no such thing as an adult without a sense of humour. “Almost everyone is capable of developing a sense of humour, and I teach people how,” he says. “Different aspects of our senses of humour come out depending on who we’re with. There’s a very strong social component to it.”
RD: What are the different types of senses of humour?
Martin finds it useful to look at the ways individuals use humour in their daily lives and what function it serves for them. “Some people enjoy laughing and joking with others and making others laugh,” he explains. “Others are more quiet and introspective, but still find a lot of amusement at the absurdities of daily life. Others use humour in aggressive ways, such as teasing, sarcasm, racial and sexist jokes, etc. For these people, humour seems to be a way of making themselves feel better at the expense of others.”
RD: Is any type of humour truly universal?
Everyone the world over loves to laugh at other people’s mistakes, according to Davies. Everyone laughs at the indirect breaking of verbal rules; in other words, we find it funny when taboos are broken regarding what we are not allowed to talk about in public. That said, as Davies points out, “What is forbidden differs a lot between societies.” However, Peter McGraw, author and director of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder in the US, thinks that slapstick is a universal form of comedy, because it doesn’t rely on language to get its point across. “ All you need,” he says, “is the right victim.”
RD: Do people tend to share a sense of humour unique to their own national identity?
Sense of humour does tend to vary a lot by country, according to Weems. It’s even been measured scientifically: British humour tends to be absurd in nature, while American humour has an assertive or aggressive quality. One study, Weems says, “had people from all over the world rate the quality of jokes and found that Germans tend to find everything funny.”
RD: Can laughter improve your physical and emotional wellbeing – in other words, is it really the best medicine?
While laughter is no substitute for actual medical treatment, many experts believe that it can have a positive impact on one’s overall health and well-being. Davies contends that while laughter has no direct effect on one’s physical health, “It is a useful part of a cognitive-behavioural strategy aimed at being cheerful rather than depressed, and, of course, psychological states do influence physical health.”
And Weems says that laughter is the best medicine, just so long as “it’s combined with a good dose of penicillin.” He adds, “Laughter has been shown to improve heart health, immune system response, and even pain tolerance. This shouldn’t be surprising, since we already know that stress and anxiety have terrible effects on the body. So why shouldn’t humour do the opposite? I think humour is best seen as a protective mechanism, something to keep our minds focused on positive things and our bodies free of stress.”
RD: How can humour help us cope with adversity?
Anything that can distract us from our cares and concerns, no matter how briefly, could be beneficial. Wilson calls humour a “shock absorber”. He believes it can provide us with a much-needed sense of balance and perspective when the going gets tough. “There is real value in comic relief,” he says. “A sense of humour is a perspective, a way of looking at things. Humour can make the unbearable a little more bearable.”
RD: What are the funniest jokes from religious texts, if they exist?
If you’re looking for gut-busting laughs, you’re probably better off watching a comedy film than cracking open a religious tome. “There is some humour in religious texts, in particular puns and irony,” Martin says. “However, they’re usually not very funny. The attitude underlying religious experience tends to be quite different from that underlying humour. Humour has a diminishing effect, poking fun at pomposity and excessive seriousness, and bringing things down to earth. Religion has the opposite effect of elevation, making things that are trivial and mundane seem important and sacred.”
RD: Is laughter contagious?
“There have been dozens of studies that have shown that simply having people laugh near you is enough to make you laugh too,” says Weems.
RD: What is laughter yoga?
Nira Berry is a laughter yoga teacher, health and happiness coach, and CEO of LaughingRx. Calling it “yoga” is a bit of a misnomer, she says, in that the classes and workshops don’t actually revolve around yoga poses. Instead, “what we’re doing is laughter, deep breathing, movement, and being silly. We’ll role play silly moves with each other; for example, we’ll shake hands in a funny way and just laugh, or pretend we’re driving a car and laughing … We’re laughing with each other, letting go, and being silly.” And she says her workshops are of tremendous emotional benefit to the participants. “After the workshops people tell me they feel uplifted, energised, joyful, and happy – it’s an incredible experience.”
Humans need to let go and have a bit of fun every day, Berry believes, or they’ll burn out. Even if you can’t attend a laughter workshop, Berry maintains that “People should treat themselves to laughter every day. Life can be stressful, and laughter is the perfect exercise to reduce stress.”