A look at laughter
Date: June 23, 2001
Contact: Mary Bridget Reilly
We're not just playing this week's University of Cincinnati e-briefing for laughs. Plenty of people are taking a serious look at the role of laughter in our lives -- why we do it, how it benefits us and how we can create more of it. So straighten up for a minute, stop trying to crack up the guy in the next cubicle and get the straight scoop about laughter.
Table of contents:
I. Funny business
A. The bottom line message
B. Humorous ads to be handled with care
C. Banking on laughter
II. Laughter -- the best medicine?
A. Laughing even if it's not so funny
B. Humor as antidote to stress?
C. Teaching the art of humor in the act of healing
D. Practicing with a sense of humor
III. The science of laughter
A. Why we laugh
B. "Exercising" your sense of humor
C. Laughter and humor in our brains
D. Stand up and laugh
IV. A world of laughter
A. Humor across cultures
B. Three theories on humor
C. A universal humor?
D. Culture and language impact on humor
E. American brand of humor
F. Laughing on cue
V. Laugh lines: who laughs at what?
A. Gender is a funny thing
B. More gender research
C. Laughter of a child
I. FUNNY BUSINESS
A. THE BOTTOM LINE MESSAGE
Laughter and positive emotions show measurable benefits on the body, and that's good business according to Karyn Buxman, a registered nurse and past editor with the American Association for Therapeutic Humor. Buxman did her thesis project on humor and health and has spent the last 12 years working in that area. "One of the challenges now is talking to large organizations and helping them recognize that not only can (humor) improve morale and make employees feel good, it can also financially impact their bottom line," she says. "Organizations now spend about 50 percent of their bottom line on health-related expenses. By giving employees a variety of coping mechanisms, they are actually benefitting themselves."
Web site: http://www.HUMORx.com
B. HUMOROUS ADS TO BE HANDLED WITH CARE
While many favorite ad campaigns use humor to make their point, it can backfire, advises Karen Machleit, a professor of marketing in the University of Cincinnati's College of Business Administration. "Humor in advertising definitely attracts attention, and that's the first step in getting an ad to work," she says. "Humor tends to work best if it is product related. For example, the Energizer bunny commercials." A campaign that was funny but didn't work nearly so well was the Joe Isuzu commercials, which dealers complained didn't help sell cars. Humor has other effects as well. For one thing, Machleit says, it is distracting. That makes it more likely that consumers will accept an advertiser's claims. It also tends to increase source credibility, so that a funny ad with a famous person becomes even more readily accepted.
C. BANKING ON LAUGHTER
We've all heard the phrase, "Laughing all the way to the bank." But does having money make people more prone to laughter? "It depends on how they got it and how hard it is to keep it," opines Steve Wyatt, head of the finance department in UC's College of Business Administration. "I wouldn't say that people with money are stressed, but certainly if it's proving hard to keep, people do worry about it. There can be fairly high stress levels in maintaining money."
II. LAUGHTER - THE BEST MEDICINE?
A. LAUGHING EVEN IF IT'S NOT SO FUNNY
Cancer, AIDS, incest, depression, divorce -- these don't sound like very funny subjects. Yet laughter therapist Annette Goodheart helps people suffering with these kinds of troubles use laughter to feel better. "I use the formula for laughter that Charlie Chaplin used: You must be able to play with your pain. We don't have a choice about what happens to us. But we do have a choice about how we relate to what happens to us. I help people alter their relationship with their situation, always with their permission," said the author of Laughter Therapy: How to Laugh About Everything In Your Life That Isn't Really Funny.
That doesn't mean, however, that people should laugh at others' pain.
"That's ridicule. Ridicule is the dark side of laughter, which seems to be one of the consistent factors in the school shootings we read about. I don't think people realize the power of ridicule," she said. Futhermore she warns that laughter is not the end-all and be-all. "If you need to grieve, you need to cry. Often you need to cry before you can laugh... They are both cathartic and very important processes."
B. HUMOR AS ANTIDOTE TO STRESS?
University of North Carolina-Charlotte professor of psychology Arnie Cann believes humor can have a positive impact in counteracting stress. Cann, who studies humor and stress, helped lead an experiment with college students who were showing early signs of susceptibility to depression. Two groups watched videos over a three-week period. The group that watched comedy videos showed more improvement in their symptoms than did a control group that watched non-humorous videos. "I think that we see humor as being potentially able to serve as a buffer to minimize the effect stress has on us," Cann says. "Regular exposure and planned use of humor can minimize damaging effects."
C. TEACHING THE ART OF HUMOR IN THE ACT OF HEALING
Humor and health advocate Karyn Buxman says introducing humor even to sick people who normally don't laugh much can be very beneficial. Buxman, a past editor with the American Association for Therapeutic Humor, says people who normally haven't relied on humor in coping with stressful medical events showed benefits when they did turn to humor. And the more they practiced it, the easier it became. "It was not just a matter if they could appreciate humor, but whether they could create it as well," Buxman says. "We encourage people to be proactive, to make it a point to watch something at least once a week that they find entertaining, to read something funny or ask people they know to send them a joke."
D. PRACTICING WITH A SENSE OF HUMOR
For 41 years as a practicing physician, Dr. Donald Ebersold found the role of laughter a great aid in helping and relating to his patients. Ebersold, a professor emeritus of clinical family medicine at UC's Medical Center, collected jokes and humorous sayings and still trades them with his former patients when he sees them around the suburban Cincinnati community of Milford. "We knew humor stimulated the endorphins, which was going to make you feel better," Ebersold said. "But I always felt if you could just take someone's mind of (their pain), it would help. And I thought it made the whole process more enjoyable for the patients, as well." Ebersold offers up a couple of his favorite sayings about humor and medicine: "He who laughs, lasts," and "Humor itches the brain; laughter is what scratches it."
III. THE SCIENCE OF LAUGHTER
A. WHY WE LAUGH
Robert Provine, professor of psychology and assistant director of the Neuroscience Program at the University of Maryland - Baltimore County, made the first, modern study of the biology and psychology of laughter. The results are in his most recent book, "Laughter: A Scientific Investigation" (Viking Press, October 2000). In observing the conditions under which people and animals -- yes, great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans) laugh -- Provine found laughter is 30 times less likely to occur when a person is alone than when a person is with others. "Laughter has little to do with jokes and funny stories. That accounts for, perhaps, 15 percent of the times we laugh. Laughter is a universal, unconscious, remarkably contagious vocalization among humans. We cannot control real laughter." In fact, you can't make yourself laugh if you try. Provine says laughter is a social signal. We laugh with people in our group. We laugh at people outside the group. So, we might use it to drive away an outsider, or to get others to "shape up...and rejoin our group."
B. "EXERCISING" YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR
Steve Wilson, a licensed psychologist and public speaker based in Columbus, Ohio, says a good laugh gives the body a cardiovascular workout. "The heart rate and blood pressure increase slightly during hearty laughter, and return to normal eventually after the laughter stops, similar to exercise."
Wilson adds that researchers now understand more about why laughter enhances the immune system. "One effect is a reduction of cortisol levels. Cortisol in the bloodstream acts like fog on a highway... it's very hard for good cells to see where they are going. Cortisol levels increase under stress. When you laugh, these cortisol levels go down, allowing the good cells to do their work." Wilson adds that a good laugh also packs the bloodstream with vital oxygen to feed organs.
C. LAUGHTER AND HUMOR IN OUR BRAINS
Victor Raskin, English professor at Purdue University and editor-at-large of "Humor: the International Journal of Humor Research" points out that laughter and humor are quite different and not always associated with one another. Humor doesn't always produce laughter. It may only produce a smile or simply a feeling of satisfaction. For instance, the euphoria center of the brain is stimulated when a listener processes an incongruous joke. That same region is also stimulated when a mathematics problem is solved. So, although humor will generally produce satisfaction, it may not always produce laughter. And laughter may come from many sources besides humor. It may be evinced by physical stimulation (like tickling) or from embarrassment.
D. STAND UP AND LAUGH
Though humans and other apes can both laugh, human laughter is quite different from that of our primate cousins, according to Robert Provine, professor of psychology and assistant director of the Neuroscience Program at the University of Maryland - Baltimore County. Chimpanzee laughter sounds like panting, with only one sound made per outward breath or per inward breath. It's this one-to-one ratio between breath cycle and vocalization that makes it impossible for most primates to speak. On the other hand, when humans became bipedal (standing and walking upright), it freed the upper body from weight-bearing functions and allowed better breath control. "Humans can chop an exhalation, modulate it to produce language and laughter," Provine says. "Chimps can have linguistic concepts, but they can't physically make the sounds of language. We humans have a great range of freedom in the sounds we make, including laughter, because we walk upright. Who would have guessed?"
IV. A WORLD OF LAUGHTER
A. HUMOR ACROSS CULTURES
Humor expert Lawrence Mintz, an associate professor of American Studies and director of the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies at the University of Maryland, points to three rules about humor that help define the subject. The first is that humor is universal. "There is no culture that anyone has encountered that doesn't have some humor," Mintz says. The second rule is that all humor is culture-specific. "There are specifics as to who can make fun of whom," he says. In America, it is usually okay to make fun of our bosses or the president. But in medieval times, clowns and jesters could make fun of second-tier nobility or, even worse, grotesques or mentally disabled, but never could make a joke at the expense of the king. Mintz says every culture has a version of the trickster/bad boy/wise fool, someone who can see something that everyone else can't. "The third point that makes studying humor more complicated is that it is also highly personal," Mintz says. "It depends on each individual's makeup. That's what makes it so fascinating."
B. THREE THEORIES ON HUMOR
Victor Raskin, English professor at Purdue University, and editor-at-large of "Humor: the International Journal of Humor Research" as well as past president of the International Society of Humor Studies, describes three major theories of humor:
1. Incongruity: The listener is expecting one script but is cleverly switched to another.
2. Aggression: Aristotle and Plato thought we laughed out of superiority or at others' flaws. Young children often start at this level.
3. Relief and liberation: "We all live under the yoke of reality and logic, and humor frees us from the burden of reality," said Raskin about this last theory that Freud and others favored.
There are similarities and differences across cultures, however. In any culture, extra-long words tend to be considered funny, as do bizarre words. In America, humor is pervasive. Any politician who doesn't tell jokes and pepper his delivery with self-deprecating humor is considered a bore. In other cultures - Arabic and Japanese for example - humor is reserved for intimate relationships. It's considered disrespectful to use humor in public life or with distinguished guests. "We had a Japanese linguist join our faculty. His presentation to the search committee was funny and humorous. I knew immediately he'd lived a long time in America. Once you can make appropriate jokes in a foreign language, you've arrived."
C. A UNIVERSAL HUMOR?
There may not be a universal joke that can make everyone chuckle, but most people in the world find laughter in the same kinds of things. That's according to Benji Leung, an instructor in the English Language Teaching Unit of the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has a research interest in humor. "Technically speaking, I'd think there are always people who find a joke lame or not funny," Leung says. "However, I'd also think that there are things that most people go through universally. For example, growing up, schooling, dating, romance, love, work and aging are topics people can relate to across different age groups. These topics seem to have the prospect of being funny across cultures."
D. CULTURE AND LANGUAGE IMPACT ON HUMOR
Benji Leung, instructor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has a research interest in humor, says he finds language is not the only barrier when it comes to sharing humor. "Many people would assume that people from the same culture would more or less share a common understanding of the context and therefore it is easier to catch the humor. However, I'd think that even people in the same culture may not get the gist of a joke," he says. For example, Cantonese has a different sound system from the Mandarin Chinese. "Therefore, some Mandarin words when interpreted in the Cantonese sound system can become sound-alike words with completely different meanings, creating quite humorous effects. This goes the same way from Cantonese to Mandarin Chinese," Leung says.
E. AMERICAN BRAND OF HUMOR
If it seems Americans like to laugh a lot, that is not a false impression, according to Lawrence Mintz, associate professor of American Studies and director of the Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies at the University of Maryland. "We've always had a reputation even back to the colonial period, as people prone to humor," Mintz says. "Upper-class Europeans that visited even then said it was another side of our uncouth nature, especially the kind of teasing and joking that is part of our humor." As for finding the cutting edge in current American humor trends, Mintz advises heading to Las Vegas. "I think Las Vegas is almost a kind of sacred territory in the U.S. When we go there almost all normal moral order is suspended - we gamble, we drink, we go to shows with naked women in them. It's a reservation for counterculture expression, and humor is a part of that. Even Johnny Carson -- who we remember as this playful kind of character from the Tonight Show - would in his earlier days when he still needed money go to Vegas and deliver a routine that was as blue as anything out there right now."
F. LAUGHING ON CUE
Another tidbit from Robert Provine of the University of Maryland - Baltimore County: The "laugh track" common in television today has ancient roots. The Greek playwrights stacked their audiences. The Roman Emporer Nero ordered thousands of soldiers to attend and applaud his acting performances. (Not surprisingly, he won all the acting awards of his day.)
V. LAUGH LINES: WHO LAUGHS AT WHAT
A. GENDER IS A FUNNY THING
Virginia Elkins, assistant dean in UC's College of Evening and Continuing
Education, is teaching a summer course on male/female communication. Elkins points to one case study she had researched as an example of the differences in male and female humor. "A woman had been promoted to an office of mostly men and as part of her welcome, they kept moving her desk. The men were demonstrating that they liked her. It was part of the bantering or a friendly initiation. But the woman felt the gesture was aimed at making her uncomfortable in her position as new office manager. When she reported the incidents to her manager, the men were offended and felt she had been overly sensitive. They also felt hurt, because they had accepted her into the group. They thought she was their friend, and they would have done the same thing to a male manager if they had liked him."
Elkins adds that men often use a bantering form of humor as a bonding pattern, whereas women will bond through more personal communication. "You'll see this even among very young boys. For example, one little boy may go up to another, poke him on the arm and call him a frog, and they become friends. If he did that to a little girl, she would not see that as a gesture of friendship."
B. MORE GENDER RESEARCH
Both men and women laugh a lot; however, men garner more laughs from both men and women, according to Robert Provine from the University of Maryland - Baltimore County. Women laugh more when talking to a man than when talking to a woman. When men listen to women, men laugh less. "It's the real feeling leaking through. Whether that feeling is related to power or dominance, we don't know. We do know that women tend to laugh at men they're attracted to, and men tend to be attracted to women who laugh at them. If you pay attention to the laugh pattern, you can tell a lot. Laughter is a powerful probe into social relationships," he says.
C. LAUGHTER OF A CHILD
Doris Bergen, professor of educational psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has studied laughter and humor in various stages of child development. She says that while laughter is an innate characteristic, our reasons for laughing vary at different age levels. Babies, for example, will start giggling as a result of physical interaction from games such as peekaboo. "Even at that early age, we start to see laughter as a result of incongruous actions, often the root of laughter with adults. They expect one thing but something else happens, triggering the laughter." As babies become toddlers, Bergen says they begin to laugh at a more subtle form of verbal incongruity or silly sayings. "When they get to preschool age, they begin understanding riddling patterns and laugh at riddle-telling before they understand the point of the riddle. They do understand the pattern of humor, even if they don't understand the riddle. Children's understanding of humor progresses to the understanding of conceptual incongruity and multiple meanings as they grow older."
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