Michael Abrahams | Laugh nuh!
What would life be like without humour and laughter? Very boring, huh? We know that they help us to navigate our way through this cruel world by helping us to cope with stress, and that they make us feel good. But what is underappreciated is the importance of laughter and humour in our lives and the roles they play in our very survival.
Thanks to the work of researchers in the field of gelotology, the study of laughter, there is objective evidence of how humour and laughter enhance our existence, assisting us to not only survive, but to thrive.
For instance, laughter is usually associated with humour and “getting” jokes, but it is even more strongly associated with bonding.
In a study performed at several malls in the United States, it was found that out of 1,200 laugh episodes, only about 10 per cent were generated by jokes. Merely being in the presence of friends, peers or associates is enough to evoke laughter. The study also found that people are 30 times more likely to laugh when other people are around, indicating the social importance of laughter.
The association of humour and laughter regarding bonding does not only apply to groups, but also to intimate relationships as well. Several studies have examined the role that humour plays in heterosexual unions and how it influences attraction and choosing a mate.
Laughter is welcome during interactions between intimate partners with few exceptions (such as a woman laughing when her partner removes his underpants to make love to her for the first time). The interesting thing is the gender difference regarding how humour affects men and women. Women tend to be drawn to men who make them laugh, while men are drawn to women who find them funny, validating the male ego’s reputation for being inflated and fragile, like a cheap blown-up condom, and needing to be stroked.
There is a strong correlation between intelligence and the ability to create and appreciate humour, and maybe this is what women find desirable, as they feel more secure with someone who has sense, compared with a half-wit. With respect to my own life, I was very funny in high school, and all the girls wanted me … to leave them alone. So, there are exceptions.
Learning is also facilitated by humour. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps to control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres, and is important for goal-oriented motivation and long-term memory. It has been found that humour activates the brain’s dopamine reward system. Motivation and memory are undoubtedly of value in the learning process, so it would be logical to assume that by activating dopamine, humour would be a valuable tool to be utilised in teaching and imparting information. Research has validated this.
For example, an American study found that viewers of humorous news shows such as the Daily Show and the Colbert Report exhibited higher retention of news facts than those who got their news from more solemn sources such as newspapers, CNN, Fox News, or network stations. Studies of subjects from kindergarten level to post-tertiary level consistently show the value of humour in learning.
An analysis of 40 years of educational humour research indicates that humour increases the strength of human connections and that non-aggressive, relevant, appropriate humour appears to be a helpful learning tool, especially when sandwiched between instruction and repetition.
However, developmental differences should be considered, as younger students may find irony, sarcasm, and exaggeration difficult to understand. I can vouch for the value of humour in my own learning experience. While in medical school, the lecturers that I learnt the most from were those who were witty, and often rude and crude as well, appealing to my juvenile and warped sense of humour.
Then there is health. We are familiar with the saying “Laughter is the best medicine,” and laughter is great medicine, although it may not exactly be the best in certain situations, such as explosive diarrhoea.
But laughter does help with our health. Genuine laughter releases endorphins, substances produced by the brain, that not only produce euphoria, but possess pain-killing properties. Endorphins affect the same receptors as heroin, so it is understandable why a vigorous belly laugh makes us feel so good and elevates our mood. But laughter does even more than that to our bodies. Our bodies produce stress hormones such as cortisol and catecholamines, which are useful during our “fight or flight” response when faced with acute stress.
With chronic stress, however, they adversely affect us. They depress our mood, decrease our circulation, elevate bad cholesterol levels, promote inflammation, weaken the immune system, affect glucose metabolism and predispose to infertility, irregular heartbeats, hypertension and heart attacks. Humour and laughter, by elevating endorphin levels and reducing the levels of stress hormones, have been found to neutralize the negative effects of chronic stress and minimize the effects of their sequelae.
The definition of health includes not just physical, but mental and social well-being. So, if humour and laughter make us feel good mentally, and impact on our learning, bonding, socialisation and intimate relationships, as well as benefiting our bodies, we should explore ways of ensuring that we incorporate humour and laughter into our daily routines. It could save our lives.