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About Laughter

What is laughter? Where does laughter originate? Why do we laugh? What happens when we laugh? These are questions that scientists have been trying to answer for centuries. 


Laughter is a complex phenomenon that is still not fully understood. Is it only humans that laugh?  Is humour and laughter the same thing? How does laughter affect our mind and body? What impact does laughter have on those around us? Is laughter really contagious? Does our sense of humour change? So many seemingly unanswered questions!


We try and address some of these questions both here and in our services. You can also discover more in our blog posts and in our external links to scientific studies carried out by other gelotologists (those that study the effects of laughter on the mind and body).

An audience of young people in an auditorium laughing at a performance

Difference Between Humour and Laughter

Is humour and laughter the same thing? Well... no, not exactly. Here we pick apart the meaning of the words and why they shouldn't be confused.

Humour and laughter have been closely related for centuries. The word ‘humor’, is Latin in origin and means ‘body fluid’. The Ancient Greeks widely believed that the balance of fluids in the body controlled our emotions and health. In light of the modern research in to the effects of laughter - the positive chemicals produced (and negative chemicals closed off) when laughing, it is fascinating to discover how accurate their understanding was.
Boy with his head tilted to one side laughing

Do Children Laugh More Than Adults?

Children appear to laugh so much more than adults. Is that true, and if so, how much more?

There is a common misconception which you will find throughout the internet that children laugh on average more than 300 times a day and that by adulthood this drops to less than 20. This is usually to support the argument that adults become too serious and somehow lose their sense of joy and playfulness and therefore don’t laugh as much. Although there may be some truth in this statement, Dr Rod A. Martin, Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario, and a leading scientist in the field humour and laughter and their link to psychological health said, “I have not been able to find the scientific research that these numbers supposedly came from.”
A spaniel wearing comedy nose, glasses and moustache

Do Only Humans Laugh?

Surely we're not alone when it comes to laughter...are we?

Many animals recognise and understand smiles and laughter but it was widely believed that very few are able to do it. There are many animals which display sounds that are like laughter (such as the hyena) but with little evidence to support the fact that it is anything more. However, a study in 2021 by Sasha L. Winkler & Gregory A. Bryant, PhD students at the UCLA's anthropological department have now identified at least 65 creatures (including humans) which they believe do indeed laugh.
Three elderly people laughing together

Does Our Sense of Humour Change?

How does what makes us laugh change as we get older?

The first signs of laughter occur at around the age of 3-4 months and is used as a signal to the primary care providers to communicate that they want something or require attention. As we get older, it is used to provide emotional context to conversation, signal group acceptance in social interactions and to express amusement.
Two young women laughing as they lay on the grass

Is Laughter Contagious?

Can one person's hilarity spark laughter in another, even when the source of the mirth is unknown? Time to look at whether laughter really is contagious.

Laughter can seem contagious in much the same way as we view yawning. The mere sound of laughter may appear to trigger gelotoleptic episodes in those close by, but does that necessarily mean its contagious?
A collage of laughing faces of all ages and races

What Is Laughter?

Before we delve into its purpose and impact, let us first define what it actually is...

Laughter is a natural involuntary response to certain internal or external stimuli. Most commonly, it is a brief, vocalised expression of joy, often accompanied by facial expressions, changes in breathing and body movement. The sound of laughter can signal to others that something pleasant is happening. It can be a response to absurdity, amusement, incongruity, tickling, joy and relief. Laughter isn’t exclusively linked to comedic actions. It can be an expression in less positive circumstances, for example, taunting, nervousness, surprise, panic, pain and schadenfreude.
A collection of laughing statues from Beijing

When Did We Start Laughing?

Which came first - the punchline or the laugh?

Laughter is thought to be a social behaviour that developed early in human evolution and it is important to note that it continues to evolve with us. Since evolution is focused on the survival of a species, the physical act of laughing (and the effect it has on us) would have made early humankind vulnerable. Extreme laughter can render us with a temporarily loss of muscle strength (known as gelotolepsy), tearful, red faced, light-headed, achy, unsteady and with a temporarily interrupted respiratory system. This would make us susceptible to predators at a time when there were far more physical dangers. Such behavioural traits (those that are a danger to a species) do not usually survive, as any benefit they serve is outweighed by the negative. However, as we have evolved, so too has laughter - and with many advantages that have safeguarded its (and our) survival.
People laughing as they ride a rollercoaster

Why Do We Laugh?

A number of differing theories exist about what laughter is and why we laugh. Here we look at four of the most common...

Aristotle, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Hobbes, Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud, Anthony Ludovici, Arthur Schopenhauer and Immanuel Kant are among a number of eminent neurologists, philosophers and psychologists who have studied laughter and formed theories to explain what humour is. All have varied ideas of what humour is (and the purpose and effects of laughter). Among the most traditional theories are: Relief Theory - identified by Prof. Sigmund Freud, it relates to the dark humour developed from tense situations, where laughter is the emotional release to signify safety and to expel the excess energy stored in tense and stressful situations. Examples of this might be the nervous laugh or elation following a stressful activity like a bungee or parachute jump, or a hair-raising fairground ride. Incongruity Theory - explored and developed by philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Immanuel Kant (who was "a real pissant and was very rarely stable”) and Aristotle (who was also “a bugger for the bottle”) based on the idea that humour can be derived from the unexpected - when what we think is going to happen takes an unusual or contradictory turn, replacing logic and familiarity. It is the momentary pause - ‘when the penny drops’ - between what our brain was expecting to happen (and the realisation of the unexpected resolution that occurred) that can trigger the physical response of laughter. An example of this is the joke…
Mature woman holding her hand to her head and laughing

Why Is Laughter Important?

Lets take a look at how laughter has impacted the lives of others, and what laughter means to them...

Many have explained the importance of laughter in understanding and dealing with painful or sensitive situations. It is fine line that many comics toe when entertaining audiences; recognising that laughter can be found (and has importance) in relation to sensitive subjects whilst ensuring they are not encouraging laughter directly at the victim or act.
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