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Why do humans laugh?

by Bill Rutherford
| December 15, 2010 8:00 PM

Hey, wanna hear a joke? OK, here you go. A guy walks into a bar. Another guy walks into a bar. The third guy ducks.

OK, here's another one. What did the fish say when he ran into a wall? Dam!

If laughter is the best medicine, why do humans use this drug? What makes one laugh at a joke as readily as one laughs as a person slips on the ice and falls on her keister? Does one choose to laugh or is laughter an inherited purposeful social vocalization that binds people together?

Imagine going to an interview for a job. The interviewer does not smile and offers little emotion. Many will leave the interview believing they blew their opportunity for employment, even if they fully answered all questions and feel they are the best-qualified person for the job. Likewise, when the interviewer smiles and laughs during the interview, the interviewee becomes overconfident in their possibility for employment. People determine satisfaction and approval by receiving a laugh and a smile.

Many laugh when beginning a conversation and the person who initiates a conversation will laugh 50 percent more than the receiver of the information. Only 10-20 percent of laughter is due to joke telling, which leaves 80-90 percent of laughter due to unfunny or humor-neutral communication.

This experience, laughing at things that aren't funny, offers insight into the purpose of laughter. One might laugh to diffuse an anxious situation or laugh as a coping mechanism to change the world's perception of the messenger. When the messenger laughs more than the audience, as described above, the messenger is in charge of the emotion of the message.

Using the tool of laughter appropriately can rebuild a damaged relationship or create a new one. If a person is angry, disappointed or frustrated, laughter can diffuse the negative emotion. Laughing calms the anger and makes communication possible. That being said, inappropriate laughter can trivialize deserving disappointment and create more frustration. Use laughter sparingly and purposefully.

Laughter is a tool that can also manipulate and confuse. When a teenager calls a peer a hurtful name then laughs as the peer cries, the name-caller controls the exchange with hurtful humor. Offering, "What's wrong? Can't you take a joke," rewards the bully who retains power over the tearful victim. A stern, "Yes I can take a joke, but you're not funny," might erase the displaced humor and allow the victim to regain her power.

Laughter is an inherent emotional reaction to nurture or control relationships. When first meeting, one tends to smile and laugh more readily than one who has known their partner for more than a year. Smiling and laughing brings people together. Most women report a sense of humor as their No. 1 most important attribute in a perspective partner. Laughing matters.

Another benefit of laughter is that it improves our overall mental health. Pent up negative emotions, such as anger, fear, and sadness can cause psychosomatic changes in our bodies and minds that can produce a harmful mental and physical effect.

Laughter provides a harmless outlet for these negative emotions, and provides a coping mechanism for dealing with difficult or stressful situations. Humor is contagious. Once a person starts to grin, others will follow.

When feeling sad or stressed, surrounding oneself with funny people or situations can heal the blues. To cure the blues, go to a ridiculously funny movie, hangout with kids - kids are usually worth a few chuckles - or find your funniest friend and plead, "Make me laugh." The sadness will disappear and the warmth of human acceptance and togetherness will envelop your soul.

Working with kids is the most satisfying and funny work a person can do. I offer the following chuckles and giggles reported by the staff at Atlas Elementary School by the children they teach. Remember, the more one laughs the happier and fulfilled they acknowledge their life to be. Please read, laugh and be fulfilled!

• A first-grader writes when asked what they wish to be when they grow up, "When I grow up I want to be a shoplifter."

• Another student has higher aspirations which will probably come true. She writes, "When I grow up, I want to be a co-worker."

• Another child shares with the art teacher, "My brother was in the hospital cuz he had lots of worms (I think the child meant, germs)."

• A fourth-grade teacher asks his student, "Were you sick yesterday?" The child replies, "No, not really, I just needed a mental health day."

• A second-grader offers this joke, "Why did the skeleton cross the road? Because he was haunting the chicken!"

• A teacher tells her son that they need to whip his dad into shape. The child replies, "How about a triangle?"

• A reading paraprofessional offers this experience working with children. "One of my 4-H horse kids was waiting to go into the show arena this past summer. I called her name several times to get her attention. It was her time to enter the arena but she was not budging. She was staring into the arena and only about 10 feet away from me so I walked over and loudly called her name. Startled she looked down at me from atop her horse and said, "Sorry, I didn't hear you, my horse was sleeping."

• A sick child in the nurse's room is throwing up and has a high fever. I walk in the room to check on him. He sits up, smiles and declares with pride and a pale face, "Guess what? I haven't thrown up for two whole minutes!"

• A fourth-grade teacher offers this exchange with a student. "I was on playground duty last fall and a student ran up to say hello. She grabs my arm and exclaims, 'Gee, your arm is sure hairy!' Then she thinks for a moment and adds, 'But not as hairy as your nose, you have a lot of hair in your nose!"

• Once I was teaching a unit on fables. We were reviewing Aesop and I told the class of third-graders that Aesop was born in about 620 B.C. One student's eyes got big and he blurted out, "Wow, he is older than God!"

Bill Rutherford is a psychotherapist, public speaker, elementary school counselor, adjunct college psychology instructor and executive chef, and owner of Rutherford Education Group. Please e-mail him at bprutherford@hotmail.com and check out www.foodforthoughtcda.com.

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