* This article was originally published in the Winter 2020 edition. Updated September 14, 2020.
Humor and laughter are unquestionably linked, but they’re not actually the same thing. Laughter is the reaction we have to humor. Humor is something that generates a laugh by being funny or amusing, like a riddle, a pun or a knock-knock joke. This type of wit is often a play on words or provides a punchline with an unexpected turn of events. Of course, the perception of the quality of humor varies with each individual. Research has found that men and women are amused by different types of humor. People from different regions of the country, or even from different parts of the world, often have a regional humor that may not be amusing to others. It can be rooted in a local dialect, a landmark or even native history and homegrown folklore.
What is perceived as humor changes over time, as demonstrated by changes in popular television shows. Think of the slapstick comedy represented by The Three Stooges that aired during the late 1950s. Then fast-forward to the 1970s and the cultural changes to humor are obvious in All in the Family, with Archie Bunker as the main character. His character was forever insulting to his own son-in-law and to many ethnic groups, and so would not likely be as popular today. But the show ushered in an era that has seen television deal with many subjects in society that had previously been suppressed.
One of the most well-liked sitcoms of current years has been Modern Family. The series follows the lives of an extended family in the suburbs of Los Angeles and how they deal with many issues that life presents. The characters include couples in second marriages, gay marriage, stepchildren and adoption, all of which are increasingly common in society. Each era of television has reflected the culture and humor of its time, helping people to see the lighter side of life and to enjoy a laugh.
Whether it’s a chuckle, a giggle, a guffaw or even a snort, laughter really can be the best medicine. A good laugh provides some immediate health benefits by stimulating many organs. The stimulation helps to relax muscles and improve circulation, all leading to better heart health. Laughter causes an increase in oxygen intake that invigorates the lungs, heart and other muscles. Think of it as a mini workout! Laughter also enhances long-term health. It can boost the immune system and has been known to relieve pain. In addition to all the physical health benefits of laughter, it also provides advantages for mental health. By reducing anxiety levels and releasing tension, laughter can help with depression. Laughing induces a release of endorphins, a natural chemical in the body, that improves a person’s overall mood.
In a social setting, it turns out that laughter is a universal form of shared communication. Infants begin to laugh at an age of about four months, which gives an indication of how primal and universal laughter is. The giggling infant is also exhibiting the beginning phases of communication and socialization. Babies soon realize that crying and laughing are powerful communication tools to engage the attention of their caregivers. Beyond the infant stages, in a more deliberate social setting, mutual laughter indicates acceptance by others in a group. By laughing with others, connections are shared on an emotional level. The emotional connection brought on by a shared laugh promotes a sense of belonging within the group. It makes sense then, that incorporating more laughter into relationships can help to strengthen the connections. But studies also show that when people are together with other people, there is more laughter. Think about how contagious laughter can be. Everyone has been in a situation where a little snicker turned into a giggle, then seemed to explode through a group as each individual was swept into the hilarity. Everything just seems a little more humorous when there are others to share it with.
The science behind laughter says it is healthy to seek out fun and humor. If watching a favorite television show brings on the giggles, try to get a friend interested too. If listening to a stand-up comedian brings on the belly laugh, then plan an evening out with friends and attend a show. One of the surprising discoveries about laughing with friends is that nothing really has to be funny. People just naturally find something to chuckle about while relaxing with friends. Common events and memories lead to even more laughter, so when a friend enjoys joking around, hang onto them—for the health of it! In a nutshell, laugh as much as possible, whenever the opportunity comes along. And if the opportunities do not present themselves, create those opportunities for yourself and others.