Laugh Away the Pain? It’s Evolutionary

by Guest Author on · 3 comments


Did you know we’ve been laugh­ing for ten mil­lion years? It started back when we were apes, of course. That’s when laugh­ter itself was “born.” There’s a rea­son why laugh­ter feels so good, so pri­mal. And the more we learn about it, the more we under­stand why we need a good laugh — prob­a­bly more often than we’ve been getting.

The Quar­ter Review of Biol­ogy recently pub­lished a study that iden­ti­fied two kinds of laugh­ter: spon­ta­neous and strate­gic. Spon­ta­neous laugh­ter is the nat­ural kind dri­ven by stim­u­lus around you, while strate­gic laugh­ter is used “in inter­ac­tion to influ­ence oth­ers or mod­u­late one’s own phys­i­ol­ogy,” said Matthew Ger­vais, lead author of the study and a researcher in the Evo­lu­tion­ary Stud­ies Pro­gram at Bing­ham­ton Uni­ver­sity in New York.

Strate­gic laugh­ter, which the researchers call the “dark side of laugh­ter,” is the kind we use inten­tion­ally, and can some­times be cruel. Think Andrew Dice Clay, or the cool kids who laughed when you walked into 5th grade on the first day of school wear­ing the sweater your mom made you. Spon­ta­neous laugh­ter, on the other hand, arises out of the bond­ing rit­u­als of our pri­mate ances­tors. Think being tick­led or laugh­ing out loud while alone watch­ing YouTube videos of cats get­ting stuck in jars. Marina Davila Ross, a psy­chol­o­gist at Portsmouth Uni­ver­sity, believes laugh­ter emerged about ten mil­lion years ago in the play of apes. Per­haps even in the tick­ling of baby apes. Who knew back then that baby apes being tick­led would be an impor­tant evo­lu­tion­ary link to the ori­gin of Ellen DeGeneres?

In teach­ing and prac­tic­ing laugh­ter yoga, I aim for my laugh­ter to be the spon­ta­neous kind. In this form of yoga, (the word yoga itself can mean “union with the breath”, which is rem­i­nis­cent of laugh­ter), we encour­age one another to gig­gle through exer­cises designed to cre­ate spon­ta­neous laugh­ter. I don’t do it per­fectly; and in fact in my classes, some­times I encour­age a cer­tain kind of strate­gic laugh­ter to cre­ate a bridge to real, spon­ta­neous laughter.

Why prac­tice spon­ta­neous laugh­ter? There have been numer­ous stud­ies about all its ben­e­fits, for our health and our rela­tion­ships. An Oxford Uni­ver­sity study even sug­gests that laugh­ter has pro­vided pri­mates with an evo­lu­tion­ary advantage.

Social laugh­ter is essen­tially “groom­ing, at a dis­tance” and it fos­ters close­ness among pri­mates the way apes bond by pick­ing bugs off each other, Oxford evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­o­gist Robin Dun­bar says in an arti­cle in The New York Times. Even Freud talks about this in his book Jokes and their Rela­tion to the Uncon­scious. But that book is annoy­ing and sexist.

Any­way, laugh­ter not only helps us bond with oth­ers, but also makes us more resilient. The sim­ple mus­cu­lar exer­tions involved in laugh­ing — specif­i­cally the con­vul­sive move­ments of the belly — trig­ger endor­phins that increase our resis­tance to pain, Dun­bar found.

Dunbar’s study, pub­lished in the pro­ceed­ings of the Royal Soci­ety B, Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences, sub­jected vol­un­teers to watch­ing var­i­ous videos. Some watched “The Simp­sons,” (who knew The Simp­sons were pop­u­lar in Eng­land?), Eddie Izzard rou­tines, and clips of other kinds of com­edy. A con­trol group watched footage con­sid­ered “feel-good”, but not funny, like nature pro­grams. A sec­ond con­trol group was sub­jected to ‘neu­tral’ (bor­ing) golf and pet train­ing videos. All par­tic­i­pants were mon­i­tored for laugh­ter dur­ing the shows. The par­tic­i­pants who laughed (pre­sum­ably those in the com­edy video group-unless nature videos are get­ting fun­nier) proved bet­ter able to with­stand phys­i­cal pain in resis­tance tests admin­is­tered after they watched the videos. And in my research, I have found stud­ies which state that we expe­ri­ence emo­tional pain sim­i­larly to phys­i­cal pain. Because of this, I would sub­mit that laugh­ter affects emo­tional pain similarly.

This study found that laugh­ter, not just a gen­eral sense of well-being, is key to the endor­phin response and pain relief. For this rea­son, Dun­bar believes laugh­ter has played an impor­tant role the social evo­lu­tion of pri­mates. And I would argue that it has played an impor­tant role in our evo­lu­tion as humans as well. In fact, I believe that laugh­ter, and its coun­ter­part, cry­ing (dur­ing which tox­ins and stress hor­mones exit the body through tears), ful­fill impor­tant bio­log­i­cal needs that sup­port us and pro­pel us for­ward as a species, just as food, sleep, and sex do.

So where does that leave us today? Are we laugh­ing enough to expe­ri­ence all the ben­e­fits our ape ances­tors did when they first dis­cov­ered this nat­ural high? I find that peo­ple who aren’t get­ting enough laugh­ter often feel weighed down by all the seri­ous­ness of adult life.

And if it’s been miss­ing for a long time, laugh­ter needs to be prac­ticed to become part of one’s life. Don’t feel dis­cour­aged if it takes time to remem­ber how to laugh spon­ta­neously. It’s still a prac­tice for me. Laugh­ter Yoga helps. Tick­ling helps. Watch­ing TV blooper reels helps. See­ing actors, who can’t stop laugh­ing, even when they’re sup­posed to be seri­ous, some­how makes me burst out laugh­ing, too. I’m even start­ing to laugh at standup com­edy again, after years of feel­ing jeal­ous while watch­ing other come­di­ans, after hear­ing a great joke they’d writ­ten. I would find myself slap­ping the table with a straight face, say­ing “That’s funny.” in a dead­pan tone, and I real­ized that jeal­ousy had drained the laugh­ter out of me.

Once upon a time, Char­lie Chap­lin said, ”

Laugh­ter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain

.” Like singing, danc­ing, and other phys­i­cal activ­i­ties, shared laugh­ter strength­ens group bonds. A laugh today may play tonic to your pain, and shared gig­gling echoes age-old evo­lu­tion­ary rewards. So find what­ever truly, madly, deeply tick­les your funny bone, and laugh it up!

About the Author: Spir­i­tual Come­dian Ali­cia Dat­tner has been tour­ing the world, sell­ing out her one-woman shows, Eat, Pray, Laugh!, The Oy of Sex, and The Punch­line, and win­ning awards, includ­ing “Best Sto­ry­teller” in the NY United Solo Fes­ti­val, “Best of the Fringe” in the SF Fringe Fes­ti­val, and “Best Come­dian 2011″ in the East Bay Express. Now she’s bring­ing together come­di­ans with a sense of spir­i­tu­al­ity and spir­i­tual teach­ers with a sense of humor in the world’s first Online Spir­i­tual Com­edy Fes­ti­val Jan. 29-March 21, 2013.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

kathryn February 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm

oh yeah…i totally believe that laughter cures many problems and lightens us up. My favorites are Big Bang Theory, Stephen Colbert, Modern Family and Family Guy!


David Stevens February 8, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Thankyou Alicia,
Spontaneity in Life is just the best thing…add laughter to the mix and Life just got better again…I’m all for spontaneous laughter, thankyou again.
Be good to yourself
David Stevens´s Last Fabulous Post ..5 strategies to break you out of your Mid Life RutMy Profile


Kyndl February 11, 2013 at 9:55 am

Try making funny faces at yourself in the mirror. See if that doesn’t satisfy your lust for Laughing.


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