• Robb G. Best

Beyond the Punchline: The Real Meaning of Laughter

“What keeps a dyslexic agnostic up at night? Wondering if there really is a dog.”

You can debate whether that’s funny or not, but either way, we’ll probably agree that the opening statement is a joke—or at least, an attempt at one.

When many of us contemplate the concept of laughter, it goes hand-in-hand with jokes. Unless you happen to be Robert Provine.

Robert Provine’s book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation attempts to understand what actually happens during spontaneous human laughter. Provine’s research team observed over 2000 cases in a wide variety of circumstances and situations. The study included men and women, and a range of ages.

The verdict? Laughter resulted from jokes or funny stories only about 20% of the time. So if it’s not all about the punchline, what’s going on?

Provine postulates that laughter has a deeper meaning. He sees it as an evolutionary advantage associated with group bonding and social communication.

Laughter shows up in infants as early as four months of age. This, of course, supports the idea that it’s not always joke-driven, most babies not being renowned for their senses of humor.

According to Provine, laughter exists across all cultures, most often accompanying statements that demonstrate knowledge of a person or people in one’s group. For instance, Hey Bill, how are the kids? or Here comes the hardest working person on the team. Accompanied by laughter, these mundane announcements reinforce a basic connection with between others and ourselves.

And interestingly, it’s the speaker who tends to do the laughing, at a rate of two to one over the listener.

You’re thirty times more likely to laugh in a group situation, and in fact the study suggests it’s pretty rare that we actually laugh out loud when alone. Go ahead and give it a try; since laughter is an unconscious act, laughing on command is always going to be an act of counterfeit.

You’re probably not surprised to find out that laughter is contagious. We tend to laugh when we hear others laughing—regardless of whether or not we know what they’re laughing at.

Provine tells us that women on average laugh twice as often as men, and the lower your social status in a particular group, the more comfortable you are laughing around them. Conversely, having a higher social in a group means you’ll be less likely to laugh.

There’s the old saying that “laughter is the best medicine.” It’s meant to underscore the importance of humor, of jokes. And even if we amend it to “laughter is the best medicine, at least 20% of time,” as a stress reliever, it can’t be beat.

The idea of laughter as an ancient group unifier makes sense, but if Provine is right, and funny stories and jokes only constitute about 20% of laughter worldwide, maybe it’s time we agree to rev up our joke production.

So Robert Provine, an agnostic and a four-month-old walk into a bar…


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