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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Chosen Rosen: Laughter: It’s a hoot!

Published: March 11, 2011
Section: Opinions, Top Stories

Remember when you were young, and you told jokes to your friends to make them laugh? “Why did the chicken cross the road?” was never really all that funny. So you cleverly thought up variations to the chicken joke …

—Why did the chicken cross the playground?

To get to the other slide.

—Why did the Roman chicken cross the road?

She was afraid someone would Caesar!

As you grew up, though, those jokes got old, so you (or thought up some new chicken jokes …

“—Richard M. Nixon: The chicken did not cross the road. I repeat, the chicken did not cross the road.

—Albert Einstein: Whether the chicken crossed the road or the road moved beneath the chicken depends upon your frame of reference.

—Machiavelli: The point is that the chicken crossed the road. Who cares why? The end of crossing the road justifies whatever motive there was.

—The Bible: And God came down from the heavens, and He said unto the chicken, “Thou shalt cross the road.” And the chicken crossed the road and there was much rejoicing.

—OJ Simpson: It didn’t. I was playing golf with the chicken at the time.

—Alex Rodriguez: It had a 10-year, $252 million contract to cross the road 162 times a year.”

The typical reaction to these jokes would be laughter. After all, we all love to laugh. Think back on the best moments of your day—they probably involved a giggle or two. Human beings are infatuated with laughter. We watch sitcoms on television, we see comedy movies in theaters, we browse through YouTube videos—to make us laugh.

We tell funny stories to our friends, we constantly crack jokes, we embellish experiences when describing them to others—to make them laugh. Most people, when choosing a friend or a date, put sense of humor at the top of their list.

Laughter is deeply ingrained in our society and culture. And we’re not the only ones. Every single language can recognize laughter—its impact is universal. Laughter defuses tense situations and lightens heavy ones. We laugh at the mistakes of others, we laugh at things that don’t quite make sense; we even laugh at ourselves sometimes. When we laugh, we don’t stop to analyze the humor—we don’t consider whether it’s reasonable to laugh at the time. We just do it.

For this reason, laughing is the least conscious of all processes. And that’s because laughter is free—there’s no limit to how many times you can laugh throughout the course of the day. And laughter is also contagious. The sound of another person’s laughter makes you want to laugh.

What exactly is laughter? Hobbes said it best: laughter is “sudden glory.”

There are five different kinds of laughter. First, of course, there’s nervous laughter. You know, when you’re in an unbearably awkward situation and you chuckle a little bit to fill the silence. Then, there’s well-mannered laughter; picture sitting at a dinner table with ambassadors and diplomats and letting out an insincere “ha-ha-ha” in between bites of filet mignon. Let’s not forget pigeon laughter—laughing with your lips closed in order to subdue the sound of your bliss. Next there’s silent laughter, the kind where you experience the sensation of laughing, without letting out a sound. Imagine watching yourself on TV with the mute button on. Finally, my favorite kind of laughter is extreme laughter. This is when your friend attempts to sit down at the table, you pull the chair back and he crashes to the floor helplessly. Extreme laughter can lead to many of the following symptoms: an adrenaline rush, having trouble breathing, snorting, tearing up and, most importantly, having difficulty stopping the laughter. And these are all good things! After all, the best kind of laughter goes on … and on … and on …

Most scientists seem to agree that laughter predates human speech by millions of years. Let’s stop to consider that for a moment. Human speech, which has been around for 150,000 years, is a newborn baby on the timeline of human evolution compared to laughter. And believe it or not, babies always learn to laugh before they learn to speak. Laughing is in our genes, it’s in our nature. It’s actually rather inhuman not to laugh. So next time someone tells a bad joke and you react by giving them dirty looks and resisting the urge to laugh, you’re the one who suffers because you’re losing your humanity!

The fact is that laughing is not all that common among living things. Besides humans, not many other animals enjoy the sensation of laughter. Rats are known to laugh (they go on cheese diets to cheddar few pounds!), as well as dogs (especially chi-ha-ha’s!) and chimps (they go bananas!). But the difference between laughter in these animals and laughter in humans is that humans are the only creatures that laugh together in large groups.

A Live Science study shows that people are 30 times more likely to laugh in the presence of others than alone. This demonstrates that laughter is not merely about glee or humor. Laughter is a social expression and we laugh in groups as a way to connect with others. Think about your closest friends. You probably make each other laugh pretty often. I personally have never had a friend that I didn’t laugh with. And that’s a good thing! Laughter is the glue that binds friendships together.

Laughter also defines us and makes us who we are. We all have distinct sounds we make when we laugh. I had friends in high school that laughed like Goofy and Kermit the Frog. Now I have friends here whose laughs sound like the Flying Dutchman from Spongebob and a poorly-tuned flute.

Aside from all the aforementioned reasons to laugh, there are countless health benefits from laughing. A University of Maryland Medicine (UMM) study’s results show that laughter protects you against a heart attack. The study found that people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared to people of the same age without heart disease. The director of the UMM, Dr. Michael Miller, recommended the following for a healthy heart: “exercising, eating right and laughing a few times a day.”

Research suggests that laughter can also relieve tension and even lower blood pressure. When we laugh, our bodies release endorphins, which reduce stress. Laughter also reduces stress by suppressing stress hormones and elevating immune-system antibodies.

And most of all, laughter can help you live longer. A study done by Science-Spirit came to this conclusion by surveying a group of participants on their humor appreciation. After seven years, the participants who scored in the top 25 percent for humor appreciation were 35 percent more likely to be alive that those in the bottom 25 percent. Quickly! Tickle yourself! Imagine a dancing clam! Watch an episode of “Jersey Shore!” Your life depends on it … just kidding!

What do people laugh at?

People tend to find others’ woes to be pretty funny. Last year, I locked my car keys inside my car with the car running. My English class got a kick out of that, while I withered away in distress. Similar to others’ woes, we usually find slapstick comedy to be hilarious. Picture the classic Three-Stooges-pie-in-the-face on loop. We laugh at things that are just plain odd. A person in a gorilla suit … hand puppets … an elf hat—all funny.

We all have busy lives—none of us have time to go to the bathroom or enjoy three meals a day anymore. But for our sanity and for our health, we really need to laugh every once in a while. A joke can break up the monotony of a long day or the seriousness of a daunting conversation. A funny face or a bit of silliness at work reminds us not to take ourselves so seriously. Consider the words of our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln: “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.” Lincoln was not the Will Ferrell of his time—Lincoln wasn’t memorialized on the side of a mountain for his sense of humor. But even he recognized how important it was.

Laughter is more than just movement of the muscles of the face or an emission of sounds. Laughter is more than just comedy or humor. Laughter is about being human and about being ourselves. Laughter is no joke.