The Psychology of Laughter

The spasmodic exhortations of laughter aid in digestion, increase endorphins, and bolster one's immunity to sickness. It also feels good.


Laughter has been called a "self-assertive" or "self-affirming" emotion, high in aggression. Frequently when someone laughs, the hand slaps down hard on an object, such as a piece of furniture. The opposite emotion, sympathy, is one of emotional rapport; laughter, on the other hand, seems to proclaim: "Ha! glad it's you, and not me." For example, seeing someone slip on a banana peel creates tension -- then relief, because it's the other guy, not you, in harm's way.


According to studies, clamping down on a pencil between the teeth, thus forcing an artificial "grin" that imitates an ear-to-ear "smirk," enhances one's general mood. After performing such a task, the subjects succumbed more easily to laughter. (On the other hand, perhaps they were in a sillier mood.)


Because the teeth are bared in mock aggression, some theories indicate that laughter originally arose as an ancient "snarl," of sorts. It could also be an appeasement gesture, a bonding influence, and a signal to one's clan that all is safe. The physiology of laughter originates from excess aggression, suddenly robbed of its natural release. Tension is suspensefully built up, only to find its source abruptly harmless. Catharsis results.

In another study, subjects were exposed to a pair of reports: one serious, the other humorous. Later they were told to smile or frown. When they frowned, they could more easily recall the serious report. When they smiled, they could more easily recall the humorous report. The general conclusion: facial expression, emotional feeling, and mental acuity are likely related.


Finally, a range of studies repeatedly indicate that laughter -- like yawning -- is generally contagious.

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