Robert Provine, Ph.D., says that homegrown laughter may be what ailing couples need most. Uniquely human, laughter is, first and foremost, a social signal–it disappears when there is no audience, which may be as small as one other person–and it binds people together. It synchronizes the brains of speaker and listener so that they are emotionally attuned.
Dr Provine is a neuroscientist who found that laughter is far too fragile to dissect in the laboratory. Instead, he observed thousands of incidents of laughter spontaneously occurring in everyday life, and wittily reports the results in Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (Penguin Books, 2001).
Laughter establishes–or restores–a positive emotional climate and a sense of connection between two people, who literally take pleasure in the company of each other. For if there’s one thing Dr. Provine found it’s that speakers laugh even more than their listeners. Of course levity can defuse anger and anxiety, and in so doing it can pave the path to intimacy.
Most of what makes people laugh is not thigh-slapper stuff but conversational comments. “Laughter is not primarily about humor,” says Dr. Provine, “but about social relationships.”
Among some of his surprising findings:
– The much vaunted health benefits of laughter are probably coincidental, a consequence of it’s much more important primary goal: bringing people together. In fact, the health benefits of laughter may result from the social support it stimulates.
– Laughter plays a big role in mating. Men like women who laugh heartily in their presence.
– Both sexes laugh a lot, but females laugh more–126 percent more than their male counterparts. Men are more laugh-getters.
– The laughter of the female is the critical index of a healthy relationship
– Laughter in relationships declines dramatically as people age.
– Like yawning, laughter is contagious; the laugher of others is irresistible.
One of the best ways to stimulate laughter–and it’s probably the most ancient way–is by tickling. Tickling is inherently social; we can’t tickle ourselves. We tickle to get a response. Or to entice ticklee to turn around and become tickler.
Not only do most people like tickling–ticklers as well as ticklees–most recognize it is a way to show affection. What’s more, adolescents and adults prefer to be tickled by someone of the opposite sex.
Tickling is probably at the root of all play and it is inherently reciprocal, a give-and-take proposition. In other words, it exactly represents the basic rhythm of all healthy relationships. Not to mention is triggers sexual excitation in adults.
But tickling declines dramatically in middle age. People begin a gradual “tactile disengagement,” reports Dr. Provine. Tickle, touch, and play, so critically intertwined, all go into retreat, although these behaviors are at the root of our emotional being.
So the next time you have an argument with your mate, don’t walk out of the room and slam the door. Try tickling your partner instead. (Most ticklish areas, in descending order: underarms, waist, ribs, feet, knees, throat, neck, palms.)
It won’t make problems go away. But it can set the stage for tackling them together.