Based on an analysis of 1,200 laughter episodes, psychology professor Robert R. Provine, of the University of Maryland, concludes that:

Dr Robert R. Provine is a neuroscientist. He works at the University Of Maryland.

Dr Robert R. Provine is a neuroscientist. He works at the University Of Maryland.

  • Less than 20% of laughter is related to jokes;
  • People are more likely to laugh in groups than when alone;
  • Women laugh more often than men;
  • Most laughter is in the context of regular conversation, rather than in attempts to stimulate laughs;
  • Speakers laugh more than listeners;
  • Males are leading producers of humor; females are the leading laughers;
  • Laughter produces activities in cells that attacks viruses and tumor cells, hence frequent laughers are healthier than frequent frowners;
  • Bad feelings lead to bad habits, people with bad feelings frown more and laugh less;
  • People who look at the bright side of things, laugh more often and are healthier;
  • Laughing is contagious; those who laugh or smile, make others laugh or smile.

Doris Bergen, professor of educational psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, says that while laughter is an innate characteristic, our reasons for laughing vary at different ages. Children, for example, laugh unconditionally while adults laugh for some reason or purpose.

Babies start giggling as a result of physical interaction from games such as peekaboo. Even at that early age, a baby laughs if she anticipates her father approaching her, but watches him tumbling and falling down.

When children get to preschool age, they begin understanding riddling patterns. They laugh at riddle-telling, regardless of whether they understand the point of the riddle.

Young children are estimated to laugh over 300 times a day – a reason why they seem to have more obvious fun than adults who average 20 times daily.

Not so long ago, laughter was considered an unsocial, sinister behavior. In the eighteenth century, Lord Chesterfield, writing to his son, said, “. . . there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter.”

According to Oliver Goldsmith, laughter was the expression of “the vacant mind” and John Ray likened it as “the hiccup of a fool.”

Today we have come a long way. Laughter is accepted as a natural, social behaviour. In fact, having a good sense of humour is regarded as a thoroughly desirable attribute by almost all of us, including human resource managers.

Recent surveys indicate that laughter can enhance the quality of our conversations and productivity. It makes people feel closer to each other.

In his book, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, Provine says that laughter is the oil in the social machine, helping human interactions run more smoothly.

Provine reveals laughter is 30 times less likely to occur when a person is alone than when a person is with others.

We tend to think of laughter as being tee-hee or ha-ha or ho-ho sorts of sounds, but studies conducted by Vanderbilt psychologist Jo-Anne Bachorowski and Cornell psychologist Michael Owren indicate otherwise: laughers produce many different kinds of sounds, including grunts and snorts.

Bachorowski and Owren studied the way 97 young adults laugh in different kind of social pairings as they watched humorous scenes from films such as When Harry Met Sally or Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

In their research, published in the September 2000 issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, the investigators found interesting gender differences in laughter sounds, with males tending to grunt and snort more often than females.

Women produced more musical laughter than men. These song-like laughs are “voiced,” meaning that they involve the vocal folds, the tissues in the larynx involved in producing vowels and related sounds.

On average, men and women produced the same number of laughs, but men tended to laugh a “bit longer” than women.

A person’s laughter was found to be dependent on the sex of his or her companion. When paired with friends of either sex, men laughed significantly more than men who were tested alone or with a male or female stranger.

Women, one the other hand, produced more laughs in the company of a male friend than females tested alone, with a female friend, or with a male stranger.

Laughter is greatly influential. In a study presented at the 138th Acoustic Society of America meeting, Bachorowski and Owren studied the impact that laughter sounds have on emotional responses in listeners.

In a quite room, undergraduate students listened to a set of 70 laughs over headphones. Fifty of the laughs (25 produced by males and 25 by females) were voiced. The remaining 20 laughs (10 produced by males and 10 by females) were unvoiced, sounding more like pants or cackles.

The students were asked to rate the laugh samples in terms of their friendliness, sexiness, how interested they would be in meeting the laugher, whether they thought the laugh should be included in a laugh track, and the extent to which it elicited a positive emotional response.

Regardless of the rating scheme, the researchers found that listeners were more likely to rate comparatively stereotypical, song-like laughs more positively than the other types.

“These results support the notion that one important function of laugh acoustics is to influence the emotional responses of listeners,” the researchers conclude.

The science of laughter is in its infancy, but one thing is clear: laughter is good you.

Read a very in-depth article by Dr Provine on his research on laughter, published in the American Scientist 84. 1 (Jan-Feb, 1996): 38-47.