She who laughs last


Recently I noticed I laugh at my own jokes.

That, by my own yardstick, makes me a wanker so I decided to find out more about laughing and why we do it when we feel awkward.

I grew up in a family of storytellers with a lot of love and a lot of laughter. My jokes are rarely laugh-out-loud funny – in fact, groanworthy puns are usually my purview – but sometimes I will throw in a one-liner. When I do, though, I almost invariably laugh through it. I can’t seem to help it, even though it annoys me.

It must be a big problem because there is a wiki page on how to stop laughing at your own jokes and a Facebook page complaining about people like me.

Lately, I find myself laughing at my own jokes more, especially at work. The location may be a clue to why I do it.

Psychologist Robert R Provine says laughter is more about establishing and reinforcing complex relationships than it is about humor.

“Learning to ‘read’ laughter is particularly valuable because laughter is involuntary and hard to fake, providing an uncensored, honest account about what people really think about each other, and you,” Dr Provine wrote in his book on the subject.

I have begun a new job in a new city that is incredibly stressful in a new office with people I don’t know. I really want to fit in.

I want my workmates to like me but I feel like I don’t have the time to really get to know them and open up, so I may be using humor as a short-cut to friendship.

It’s a big ask, now that I think about it, and an awkward situation for me so I laugh to defuse the tension. I am probably also laughing to cover the silence of no one else laughing, though of course I am desperately listening out for that giggle of appreciation.

So I was heartened to read Dr Provine say having a giggle yourself can also inspire others.

“When we hear laughter, we become beasts of the herd, mindlessly laughing in turn, producing a behavioural chain reaction that sweeps through our group, creating a crescendo of jocularity or ridicule,” he wrote.

He credits this phenomenon with inspiring 1950s television producers to lay a “laugh track” on their sitcoms, which is all-too-familiar to us today.

The case for laughing at your own jokes

Parenting blogger Dan Pearce is an unapologetic self-laugher. He says everyone should laugh at their own jokes and the idea that it’s immodest to do so is droll.

“If you truly have the gift of wit, which I and my friends obviously think we do, then whatever springs from your mouth is most often times pretty funny,” he wrote at Single Dad Laughing.

“If you do have wit and you’re like me, you also tend to not think before you joke. Whatever rolls off my tongue is something I am hearing for the first time along with everyone else. And if it’s funny, dang it, it’s funny to me too.”

The benefits of laughing

Laughter is the goji berry of psychology – every month there is a new claim of how it’s good for you. Every sixtieth wedding anniversary story I read – and I work in community newspapers so I read a few – says laughter is the key to a long marriage. Laughter helps people heal from sickness, they say. It even makes you smarter.

What we do know is that laughing helps reduce physical pain through kick-starting endorphins, which are the feel-good chemicals released after exercise, massage and sex.

Psychologist Robin Dunbar told LiveScience that after watching 15 minutes of comedy in a group, the pain threshold of participants jumped 10 per cent!

Dr Dunbar said the long series of exhalations – the ha-has – caused physical exhaustion of the abdominal muscles and therefore triggered endorphin release.

Sounds better than tummy crunches to me!

The dark side of laughter

It’s not all good news for laughter, though. The flipside to the laughter as a tension-reliever theory is that we also use laughter in traumatic situations, often when someone is hurt.

Cue: America’s Funniest Home Videos show reel.

Stanford University psychologist William F Fry reckons our instinct to laugh when watching someone hurt themselves is triggered by another sort of tension relief mechanism called a “play frame”. It puts a real-life event in a no serious context, allowing for an unexpected reaction.

“Play frames explain why most people will not find it comical if someone falls from a 10-story building and dies: in this instance, the falling person’s distress hinders the establishment of the nonserious context,” he explains

“But if a woman casually walking down the street trips and flails hopelessly as she stumbles to the ground, the play frame may be established, and an observer may find the event amusing.”

People with brain injuries can also have unwanted and sometimes painful giggling fits called “sham mirth”, which I think is a great name for something pretty horrible.

We netizens have a strained relationship with humor. We say LOL when we are actually barely smiling, we ROTFL safely in our desk chairs and if I was really LMFAOing, I’d finally fit into last summer’s jeans. So why do we lie?

I guess we just want to fit in.

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