A man goes to a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, my brother's crazy, he thinks he's a chicken." The doctor says, "Why don't you turn him in?" The guy says, "We would. But we need the eggs."
If you just laughed out loud, or even released an involuntary chuckle, you probably experienced a surge of endorphins that increased your energy levels, boosted your mood and may have even decreased any aches or pains in your body. These effects are all part of laughter’s positive impact on our daily lives.
“A sense of humour allows us to cope with stress. If we’re able to see the funny side of life’s problems, we are less likely to become distressed, overwhelmed, anxious and depressed by them,” says Rod Martin, a professor at the University of Western Ontario whose research focuses on the psychology of humour.
Although much has been made of laughter’s healing properties, less is known about what actually makes us laugh.
And while culture, age and personal taste make humour difficult to define, Martin has identified five essential components that seem to tickle our proverbial funny bones.
Even if you have the world’s most keenly developed sense of humour, it’s far more gratifying to share a joke than to keep it to yourself. That’s why funny videos, photos and websites tend to be among the most widely reposted social media items.
“Humour is a form of play which occurs in an interpersonal,” says Martin. “We rarely laugh when we are not with other people, and most of the things we laugh at have to do with people — things people do and say.”
The next time you hear something hysterical and immediately forward it to your friends, rest assured that you’re acting on a basic instinct crucial to humour.
Some of British comedy troupe Monty Python’s most successful sketches play creatively with logic, taking us along a line of thinking that appears to lead to a certain conclusion, then suddenly veers off in a different direction.
When we experience this incongruity of expectation, our mind is forced to bounce between two opposite interpretations. This causes discomfort which can be downright hilarious.
“Often the topics of humour are ones that create a degree of anxiety and discomfort — sex, marital relationships, mothers-in-law, death, flatulence, defecation, etc. These topics tend to increase our anxiety level, which adds to the excitement and pleasure when we make jokes about them,” says Martin.
Now you know why potty humour is funny whether you’re 5 or 55 and why you shouldn’t feel guilty about it either.
Part of the reason laughing feels so good is that it unleashes a series of positive feelings. Howling at your brother’s spot-on Christina Aguilera impression elicits an emotion called mirth, which creates all sorts of pleasurable chemical reactions in the brain.
“[Mirth] is what makes humour so enjoyable, and causes us to want to experience it. It’s like a drug,” says Martin.
There’s a reason you keep refreshing all those humour pages; you may be downright addicted to the feeling they bring. But as far as addictions go, comedy is a lot safer than many of the alternatives.
It seems obvious, but think about it for a second. How many times have you burst into uncontrollable, endless, gut-busting giggles just because someone else started to laugh?
“The purpose of laughter is to communicate to others that we are experiencing mirth and enjoying something humorous,” says Martin. “Laughter is also contagious, causing the listener to start experiencing mirth too. So laughter, like all of humour, is inherently social.”
Pay attention the next time someone around you starts to chuckle. If you feel your mouth involuntarily rise at the corners, and a deep guffaw bubbling up from your gut, don’t hold back. Let it rip and enjoy the positive emotions that come from laughter — particularly when you share that laughter with others.
Surprisingly, jokes represent a small percentage of the things that make us laugh. Martin points out that most of the humour we encounter on a day-to-day basis comes from our spontaneous interactions with others, whether it’s a witty comment or a funny story.
“From a psychological perspective, these more spontaneous conversational forms of humour are more important than jokes,” he says.
So don’t be afraid to recount your disastrous teenage summer camp experience. While that expired tuna casserole may have caused you serious social discomfort at the time, think of the healthy laughs it can generate today.