Source: Pexels by Andrea Piacquadio

“A day without laughter, is a day wasted” – Charlie Chaplin

Laughing is something we all do in life, whether we mean to or not. Have we ever wondered why or how it happens?

Back in 2011, I tried to understand ‘Laughter’ in a dissertation for my degree. A decade later, the mysteries of ‘Laughter’ still elude me. So, follow me on this journey as I try to unpack this enigma, knowing full well that only further questions lay ahead, rather than answers.

Am I really laughing?

Laughter is a combination of biological effects and cultural forces with both instinctual and performative roots. It’s a learned cultural experience that’s also socially influenced, i.e. by gender. It can be an uncontrollable or a controlled reaction, social or individual acts. They can be biological processes or culturally inclined. Laughter is a term that is defined by our individual experiences of it, one that I feel can not always be explained. This was the essence of my findings in 2011.

Even definitions of laughter aren’t very clear. The Collins Dictionary defines laughter as ‘the sound of people laughing, for example, because they are amused or happy’ (Collins, 2022). After reviewing several definitions of laugh, laughing and laughter from various dictionaries, starting from Collins, Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries to Merriam-Webster and google – there was no clear meaning. In some form or another, they all relate to ‘the act or sound of laughing.’

So, what’s the difference between humour and laughter? Stay with me here as we delve a little deeper. Humour is a social construct, and laughter is a result of physiological events. Thus, the effects of humour are cognitive – as perceived control increases, and laughter is a physical effect. Therefore, humour is a stimulus while laughter is an example of one of several possible behavioural responses to that stimulus (Beckman et al, 2007). Meaning laughter is the physical reaction to humour. We laugh because we find something funny.

But what actually happens?

With this in mind, take a moment to reflect on when something was so funny that you couldn’t help but laugh. Did you decide you were going to laugh? Or did it just happen? Maybe the biological and chemical reactions in the body provide a pathway to instigate the laughter that comes out from inside you.

Now, think back to a time you didn’t find something as funny but had to put on a fake laugh. Maybe those biological reactions are still taking place. After all, you still laughed. Maybe you watched others, looked around, and laughed because someone else was laughing. Thus, indicating that social cues compel us to laugh. Sometimes the reactions of others influence our decisions to laugh. It may not be intentional but social and cultural norms in society dictate our actions and reactions.

Fun fact: did you know that on occasions women tend to laugh if they see a man laugh at a joke, even if they didn’t find it funny?

A focus on socially constructed roles can help us distinguish behaviour, such as laughter. It can explain why there is a difference in women’s and men’s frequency and performance of laughter. Humour is different for men and women as they communicate in different ways. During an interview with comedian, Jo Brand, she suggested that women tend to look to others for approval to see if they are laughing first before they felt that they could laugh (Sobott-Mogwe & Cox, 1999). Brand states that ‘subconsciously most men still like to think that they control most women…so women who laugh in public or make other people laugh…are unusual or unacceptable as women because they are not fulfilling male expectations and reinforcing the norm’ (Sobott-Mogwe & Cox, 1999:135). This was in 1999. Has the world changed since then?

I’ll leave that for you to contemplate.

Moreover, I return to the quote from Charlie Chaplin: “a day without laughter, is a day wasted.” Likewise, we should try to take a moment each day to do something fun. Do something that makes us truly laugh from within, whether in a group or on your own. The door to laughter is always open to all. The best part is, that you never need to seek approval!

“True laughter comes from the heart…It is the music of the soul…Life should be a wholehearted natural laugh.” Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi Devi)

Look out for Part 2: The Various Faces of Laughter, which addresses laughter as a tool used by various industries, today.

Published by Divia DM

As a creative writer, I've always been captivated by storytelling as a way to express my thoughts, creativity, and imagination. As a result, I found myself writing in various formats, especially screenplays for short and feature films. With various academic qualifications and accreditations to my name, I found writing has always been my heartbeat. I hope the articles you read, provide some joy, thought-provoking questions and much-needed laughter.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: