What’s the deal with laughing anyways?

Posted by in Musings




Have you ever wondered why we laugh? I mean beyond the fact that is makes us feel good, and it’s a derivation of feeling happy, but what purpose does it serve? And along those lines, why don’t other animals laugh? Or do some of them laugh? Do other primates?  It’s such a weird phenomenon. When you actually step back from the fact that it is so unbiquitous in society and really analyze it, you’ll actually realize laughing is a very …. funny idea (pun intended of course).

First things first, let’s define “laughter” and/or “laughing.” Webster defines it as “the action or sound of laughing” or “an expression or appearance of merriment or amusement.” The scientific definition of laughter is the “successive, rhythmic, spasmodic expiration with open glottis and vibration of the vocal cords, often accompanied by baring of the teeth and facial grimaces.” (makes it sound a lot less endearing) So we know what it is, both through definition and experience, but what purpose does it serve?

Clearly, laughing makes you happy, but here is the mental dilemma I face. Most things that make you happy have some sort of functional purpose, especially from a evolutionary standpoint. Eating makes us happy because we require food for energy. Warmth makes us happy because our body does not need to overwork to maintain optimal body temperature. Sex makes us happy because it is our means of reproducing (although I’d prefer to not have any little me’s running around anytime soon.) Hell, even pooping and peeing feel good because we need to remove our bodies of waste. All these things make us happy because the happiness derived from the said action provides a positive reinforcement to do those actions again. So what is the functional purpose of laughing? What advantageous actions make laughter so important?

Being the scientist that I am, I believe everything has some sort of evolutionary relevance. Essentially what I mean is that our adapted traits, in this case laughing, either provide evolutionary advantage or are a trait taken to an extreme. For example, Malcom Gladwell (who himself cited some actual scientist) claimed laughter is derived from the action of releasing tension after experiencing a potentially dangerous situations. His example cited how many dominate male gorrillas, who are in charge of watching out for anything dangerous may perceive something threatening and call out an alert that there MAY be something dangerous. Once he has concluded that the coast is clear, often times these apes would give a sign of relief that resembles a subtle chuckle, as if gesturing “phew, that was close.” So it seems laughter may initially derived from this gesture, the fact that something ALMOST happened, and the “laugh” is you way of releasing the energy you created.

I know it seems a stretch, and my gut reaction says that can’t be the entire picture. That may be the foundation of the trait, but it has provided additional benefits. Still, this notion does make some sense. Think about the average joke. Some of the best jokes lead you in one direction, and then the hit you with a punch line that seems out of no where. The story builds up a certain expectation, similar to the perceived dangerous situation, and then the punch line dissolves that tension with a surprise turn.

Still, I’m not convinced, nor do I expect to find an answer anytime soon. Nor do i care. I believe this is the beginning of laughter, but like anything else in evolution, we have evolved a long way since then, and laughter has become a form of social communication.  It is ruted deeply in our culture, and it’s impossible to think of society without laughter.

I like laughing…I mean who doesn’t. The only thing I can really conclude about laughing is it is incredibly infectious. Although I always crave understanding every little thing, a coworker of mine once told me “start thinking like a biologist and think ‘hmmmm, I guess it works.'”  So I guess I’ll just sit, and laugh/chuckle/chortle/giggle at the countless hours I’ve spent thinking about laughing.

And a post on laughing obviously requires comical laughter. Enjoy!