D. Did You Know?

Salient fact: Although often associated, laughter and humor however are different events. Laughing “at” pushes away. Laughing “with” brings closer.


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It’s time to clarify a few things about laughter.

Doing so is important because how you think about something dramatically impacts how you engage with it.

There are two different angles from which we can look at laughter:

  • The psychophysiological perspective looks at the mechanics of it.
  • The energy perspective looks at the intention we put behind it.

The Psychophysiological Perspective

Laughter as a response

Laughter as a response falls into one of 4 categories:

Humor1. Spontaneous laughter is triggered by different favorable stimuli that can be external (e.g., humor, human interactions) or internal (e.g., positive emotions, pleasant thoughts). This is how most people see and understand laughter: If something happens, then I will laugh (or not). Although often associated, laughter and humor however are different events. You can experience humor (a stimulus) without laughter and laughter (a choice, emotion, or a response) without humor. Humor requires high brain functions (right frontal cortex, medial ventral prefrontal cortex, the right and left posterior temporal regions, and possibly the cerebellum), which is why it varies considerably between ages, genders, cultures, etc. What is funny to some is not funny at all to others.

2. Stimulated laughter happens as a result of the physical contact or action (reflex) of certain stimuli (e.g., someone tickles you). For tickling to work, the brain needs tension and surprise, but how the brain uses this information is still a mystery. Tickling is usually a source of embarrassment when practiced with strangers and can easily turn into a form of aggression even with people you know and care for.

3. Induced laughter is of a chemical nature, e.g., by inhaling laughing gas (nitrous oxide). It has its uses in clinical settings but is not recommended for recreational purposes because it can have nasty consequences;

4. Pathological Laughing and Crying (PLC) is often associated with crying and tends to be uncontrollable and excessive. PLC is a relatively frequent consequence of brain damage when not resulting from neurologic illnesses. It has been reported that the prevalence of PLC is approximately 10-20% among patients with stroke, 40% among patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), 7-10% among patients with multiple sclerosis, and 19-49% among patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The duration of laughter episodes is usually short (i.e., less than a minute) but may last as long as an hour or until the patient is exhausted.

Laughter as a choice

Laughter as a choice

This is a category of its own and the one we will work with in this course. Here, laughter can be either simulated (forced, faked, mechanically practiced) or intentional (chosen, allowed). Either way, it is self-induced and triggered by oneself at will. Laughter in this category offers five important benefits over the random laughter of daily life:

1. It’s easier. Unlike other modalities, which are more time-consuming, committed, or expensive, laughter-based programs are easy to implement and require no particular space, equipment, or form of clothing. You don’t need to have a sense of humor or any justification. As long as someone is willing to laugh, the only limitations to the practice are physical abilities and stamina.

2. It is reliable. You can plan ahead of time where, when, how, and how long you are going to laugh. The only two reasons it may not work are if someone does not understand the instructions or doesn’t want to do it.

3. It is sustainable. Laughter attracts us because it’s a human need and something we are naturally wired to do and enjoy doing. People never get bored with intentional laughter because, in essence, it’s free of condition and, therefore, always new, fresh, and different.

4. It’s universal, accessible, and readily available. We can all choose to laugh like we can choose to believe that we can’t, yet the fact remains that humans are naturally wired for laughter. Laughter begins as an uncontrollable reflex when babies reach about four months of age. First, we laughed, then we talked.

5. It’s a valid alternative. Imagine cutting a lemon in half and squeezing it in your mouth. How do you feel? The more vividly you imagine this experience, the stronger your body will react. Your mind knows there is no lemon, but your body doesn’t. This illustrates an intricate relationship between our body and brain, and it is possible to simulate something with one to stimulate something in the other.

The Energy Perspective

Vertical Vs. Horizontal

From an energy perspective, you can laugh as you direct your energies upwards (vertical) or sideways (horizontal), leading to very different outcomes.

The 4 styles of humorVertical: This is about laughing with, focusing and moving toward what we want rather than away from what we don’t want, and exploring healthy ways to cope with stress; fostering a sense of inclusion, flow, and gratitude for life, fellowship, happiness, and well-being; celebrating life and sharing the best of ourselves.

Horizontal: This is about laughing at, moving away from, and implies a sense of disconnection. It’s about making fun of self or others in a way that diminishes, takes something away, or makes “it” look bad or worse off by implying the existence of something better and more desirable, e.g., “I have the power to make you laugh, which means I’m better than you are.” Horizontal laughter is typically associated with the sad clown syndrome. It may involve put-downs, insults hidden behind the cloak of humor, or making oneself the butt of jokes in an aggressive or “poor me” fashion. When it is intended to threaten or psychologically harm others, it is the type of laughter (typically humor) used by bullies.

May I Be Frank

Here is a video that, to me, illustrates well this difference between vertical and horizontal laughter. Meet Frank, a 54 year old man who loved to laugh and make others laugh. Yet the jokes were on him, all self-deprecating. Truth is, Frank hated himself.

Laughter In The Bible

This energy perspective on laughter is also well illustrated in the Bible, of all places:

  • It includes twenty-one references to the laughter of fools, of ridicule, or of being a laughing stock. E.g., Luke 8:53 – They laughed at him, knowing she was dead.
  • It includes eleven references to laughter as an expression of strength and fearlessness. E.g., Luke 6:21 – Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
  • It includes six references to laughter as a celebration or expression of joy. E.g., Job 8:21 – He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy.

The point here is that, like with knives, fire, or so many other things, laughter can be of tremendous value to humanity… or very detrimental, and it all depends on how we choose to use it. Please do not blame the tool for how it is used. Therefore, watch not the laughter but the energy behind it: Is it a laughter of separation or inclusion? Is it to celebrate or to ridicule? Are you laughing at or with others? Are you laughing to move away from pain or to get closer to joy? To negate the experience of laughter because you believe you are a sinner or that it is a sign of frivolity is what keeps you a sinner in a world of darkness.

There is more. This energy perspective on laughter manifests itself in words as well.

Silly vs. Playful

Let’s look at silly vs. playful, for example.

It is common for people to confuse intentional laughter with something forced, faked, acting silly, or childish.

It is essential to make a substantial distinction between these terms because how you understand and perceive your behaviors impacts the energies you place behind them, which modulates how you act and interact with others. At stake is how this dynamic affects your self-image.

“Silly” and “childish” are labels on a judgment scale. From a cultural standpoint, they are derogatory terms that define having or showing a lack of common sense or judgment as absurd and foolish. No matter your definition of those words, society will always have the last word and impose its own.

On the other hand, playful and childlike describe a state of being. They are a giving and the manifestation of a feeling of joy. They have a beginning and an end and mean nothing. They don’t take anything away and laugh “with.”

Understand that this is not a call to modify any behavior but rather an invitation to reconsider why you laugh when you do. A playful or childlike approach to everyday things is crucial to staying healthy. Daily chores are less burdensome when we laugh while doing them. We aren’t always having fun, but we have much more fun with laughter than without.

What this means in practice:

1. This is wonderful if wearing a clown nose, funny wigs, or any other prop makes you laugh. Keep wearing them. Just don’t label yourself as “silly” in your head. Wear them because you like them, they make you feel good, and you would be equally entertained if you were the only one to ever know about them. Make it fun. Please do it for yourself, not because you think it will make others laugh. The only way to tap into the more profound benefits that laughter offers is to do it for you with others and not for them.

2. Always laugh “with” others, never “at” them.

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Laughter Trivia

  • All humans laugh, which always involves a similar pattern of whooping noises. The laughter is so common and familiar that it can be recognized if played backward on tape. Deaf people who have never heard a sound still make laughing noises.
  • The laughing noises produced by humans share many of the acoustic properties of speech, which is further evidence that laughter is hijacking the brain and body apparatus that we use for breathing and talking.
  • Adults between the ages of 18 and 34 report laughing the most.
  • In terms of quantity, there is no marked difference between laughter in men and women . Differences do exist but on sounds and acoustic features (quality). In women, laughter predominates (“ha ha ha” and other vowels). In men, unvoiced laughter is frequently alternated with voiced laughter (puffs, whistles, growls, roars). Watch Professor June Gruber from Yale University explain the research findings of Dr. Jo-Anne Bachorowski on gender differences in laughter here.
  • The majority of men report that their laughter is a chuckle, and the majority of women say that theirs is a giggle.
  • Smiling is a mild, silent form of laughing.
  • Infants start to smile within the first five weeks of life and laugh at around four months .

The mind-body connection is really a body-mind connection

  • The vagus nerve is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system and one of the most important nerves in the body. It’s the direct link between our heart, brain, and gut. One of its many functions is to regulate the body’s stress response, and several studies have shown that stimulating it helps decrease anxiety, depression, inflammation, epilepsy, leaky gut, autoimmune disorders, and a myriad of other ailments.
  • 80 to 90% of the nerve fibers in the vagus nerve are afferent, which means that they flow from the body to the brain, not the other way. This suggests that in the short term, it will always be easier to alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, and similar experiences by working with the body rather than the mind.
  • There are several known natural ways to stimulate the vagus nerve to feel better (e.g., humming, gargling, chanting, cold showers, massage, exercise…), and a very impactful one is to simply breathe deeper or…laugh! Here is why: The vagus nerve goes through the diaphragm, which means that its movement stimulates it and through it the parasympathetic (relaxation) response.

Did the Buddha laugh?

Two thousand five hundred years ago, Prince Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan wanted to know the cause of suffering. When he discovered it, he became known as the Buddha, the enlightened one, enlightened enough to forge a path out of suffering into bliss (which is why he is very often depicted as a smiling Buddha). At the moment of discovery, exhilarated by the insight, did the (smiling) Buddha laugh?

The scholastic attempt at resolving the apparent contradiction between laughter and an enlightened state began by distinguishing six types of laughter. The classification based on Bharata’s 5th-century classic Natyashastra arranged the spectrum of smiling through laughter hierarchically from the most reserved expressions to the most raucous.

These included:

  1. Atihasita, uproarious laughter accompanied by doubling over
  2. Apahasita, a loud laugh that brings tears to the eyes
  3. Upahasita, a more pronounced laughter associated with some body movement
  4. Vihasita, a broader smile accompanied by modest laughter
  5. Hasita, a smile that slightly reveals the tips of the teeth
  6. Sita, a faint smile. This one is also known as the Buddha smile, denoting an inner attitude of detachment “in the world, but not of the world.”