An expression of cheerfulness and joy, that’s how the dictionary describes the phenomenon of laughter. That is true, but not always. Robert Provine, an American neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, researched when exactly we’re laughing for his book Laughter: A scientific investigation.
In ten years, Provine studied 1,200 so-called laughter episodes in shopping centers, canteens and street corners by accurately noting what was said before the other laughed. He noticed that eighty percent of the cheerfulness was the result of perfectly normal statements such as: “How are you?”, “See you later” and “I know what you mean.”
The American also concluded from his analyzes that the speaker laughed 46 percent more often than the listener. Even now, people didn’t laugh about humorous situations or jokes, but during phrases such as ‘I’m going home now, haha’ and: ‘I’m fine, haha’. In most cases, laughter was used to emphasize the words and always followed at the end of a sentence.
Laughter, the neuroscientist argues, has little to do with (a sense of) humor. In essence, it seems mainly a form of communication and therefore a social phenomenon. Because laughing together creates a connection. By laughing together, we want to make it clear that we belong together.
Frank van Marwijk, sociotherapist and author of the book Body Language, agrees. “People laugh less and more moderately when they are alone,” he says. “For example, if you watch a funny movie alone on the couch, you will not spit it out as loud as if you watch the same movie with friends or family. Laughter is contagious due to the presence of mirror neurons in our brains. If you see or hear someone laugh, you are quickly inclined to take over. ”
That is also the reason why in comedies a laugh track can be heard when a joke is made. Van Marwijk: “It evokes a cozy ‘we-feeling’ that increases the pleasure again.”
Laughing and having fun especially happen when you are with others. The body language expert outlines a recognizable situation: “Suppose you go bowling and throw a strike. The exuberant laughter then only takes place when you turn around again and walk back to your friends. Not if you stand alone on the track looking at the fallen cones. ”
Van Marwijk also says that we laugh at sharing joy with someone else. “The other day I was making a cup of tea in the kitchen when I heard my wife laugh out loud because she saw something funny on TV. She was actually trying to get my attention with that. Like: come and see. ”
We also laugh a bit in situations of discomfort (glow), Van Marwijk knows. Are we shy, nervous, insecure or anxious? Then we laugh it off. “Laughter has evolved into a social etiquette, but its real basis is fear. If you are walking down the street and someone almost bumps into you, a smile is probably your first reaction. You want to show that you do not want to harm the other person, ”says the expert.
The combination of fear, followed by relief, amplifies the laugh. Van Marwijk: “We laugh ourselves hard on a roller coaster. Because we have fun, but also because we find it quite exciting to whiz down in a cart at high speed. After all, we are in a seemingly dangerous situation and are relieved as soon as we realize that things are going well. ”
According to Van Marwijk, this explains why we sometimes make home videos laugh so much. “A video of a toddler falling hard from a swing is of course not fun. But the unpleasant feeling, the fear that things will go wrong, and the relief as soon as we see the child getting up happily again, causes the release. The same goes for a dirty joke: the feeling of discomfort makes us laugh. ”
The combination of fear and discomfort can result in the giggles. Especially when we find ourselves in a situation where laughter is not such a good idea, such as in a serious meeting. “Then we try hard to suppress the laughter, but that makes us laugh. Then we lose control of the situation and that makes us somewhat anxious. This creates a vicious circle that is difficult for us to get out of. ”
Although laughter does not seem appropriate in all situations, according to Van Marwijk we should do it as much as possible. “Laughter creates social bonding and joy. It also does a lot in mind and body. It relaxes muscles, reduces stress hormones, lowers your blood pressure and strengthens your immune system. Laughter is also healthy. Maybe an open door, but let it all go. Are you laughing! ”
This story previously appeared on the De Telegraaf site on May 25, 2018.
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