We all enjoy laughing and find humour pleasant, but chances are that we’re also underestimating humour’s capabilities and power.
What is humour, and why are we laughing? Humour is the ability to perceive and/or express something funny, but there is no global theory of humour (which is why the same content presented to different individuals or groups of people doesn’t provoke the same response). However, about 10 years ago researchers found there is a pattern in humour’s underlying mechanism that is surprisingly complex. To “produce” humour, several structures of the brain communicate with each other in a highly complicated manner in order to recognise a pattern that surprises. This recognition is rewarded with the experience of the humorous response (the pattern recognition of humour).
In fact, humour appears to be the most complex cognitive function of humankind, shared by all human societies and playing a fundamental role in homo sapiens evolution as a species. The evolutionary origins of humour and laughter lies in “half-serious, mock-aggressive play” such as tickling or chasing. It is speculated that violence was quick to escalate amongst our hunter-gatherer ancestors, oftentimes because of a faulty reaction to a threat (overreaction). Evolving to smiling and laughing would have been a way way to enrich communication with playfulness and mock-aggression: we created some kind of “reverse alarm”, common in many social primates. In addition, our ancestors’ brains, often in an ‘alert mode’ were craving pleasure (laughing also stimulates dopamine in the brain, which is involved in the regulation of the pleasure-reward system). Therefore, humour, present in all cultures, has played a fundamental role in language extension and communication, in expanding social abilities (contributing to social bonds, matting, releasing tension, etc), and has a continuing importance in the cognitive development of infants (babies as small as a few months old can smile and laugh, long before they can speak).
But there’s more. Although humour is generally associated with joyful moments, it can help in many other occasions. Already in the last century, Freud understood that humour can be useful when encountering a stressful situation, therefore he included humour in defense mechanisms (although only referring to a sense of humour about oneself).
When we’re going through a difficult time, laughing is usually not the predominant behavior that accompanies our emotions. Although it’s difficult to imagine having fun during hard times like when we are fighting depression or anxiety or suffering from a breakup, humour could be a way to limit the emotional pain. There are some encouraging results about humour-based therapies that can potentially help with anxiety and depression. Therefore, depending on our personality and life experience, we can use humour as a coping mechanism to deal with a stressful situation.
In short, humour can help us:
Research show that learning to be more playful, making fun of the absurdities of life with humour could contribute to increase our wellbeing. Moreover, humour changes the cognitive processing, helps changing the perspective and leads individuals to experience higher levels of creativity and cognitive flexibility.
But can humour be too much? Should we aim to be funny all the time? Actually, keeping one’s sense of humour permanently and relentlessly, no matter the situation and the context, could be a sign of a lack of emotional authenticity (playing an invincible and funny superhero role).
The “dark side” of humour - being sarcastic, degrading, aggressive, ironic toward others, basically when humour goes too far - is that it can lose its capacity as a “defense mechanism” (except in a very few particular situations of extreme stress, when it tries to dilute violence, racism, sexism, oppression). There are other acceptable nuances of irony and sarcasm, especially when we apply them to ourselves or when used by comedians.
The right measure, right timing and the context of humour are of great importance to preserve its positive qualities. However, don’t rush to judge an inappropriate laugh - sometimes it is just a way for someone to deal with a high-stress situation (for example, laughing at funerals).
To learn more:
Les mécanismes de défenses (in Fr) by Serban Ionescu (2005)
The Pattern Recognition Theory of Humour by Alastair Clarke, Ritchie, G. (2013)
The First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor by by Joseph Polimeni, Jeffrey P. Reiss (2006)
Humour as emotion regulation: The Differential Consequences of Negative versus Positive Humour by Andreea C. Samson, James J. Gross (2010)
Promoting emotional well-being through the use of humour. Shelley A. Crawford, Nerina J. Caltabiano (2011)
Humour, stress and coping strategies by Millicent H. Abel (2003)