We use laughter in such variety that it touches all parts of our lives. Today we’ll look at five types of laughter that we use to stitch together our collective experience.
Laughter is an inseparable part of the human experience. Especially when you’re talking to yourself because, for most people, they’re the funniest person they know.
I know what that’s like.
For a long time laughter was thought to be an entirely human experience, though this was called into question even as early as the late 19th century; Charles Darwin challenged our uniqueness of feeling in his 1872 book “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals”, and it continues today as we put dogs into MRI machines and tickle rats.
Laughter is an enigma.
Even with all of our scientific understanding, and our inborn ability and necessity to laugh, we still don’t understand it. It may seem like such a simple thing on the surface: why do we laugh? Because things are funny.
That is one of the reasons, yes. Much to my own surprise, however, I have found it to be the least frequent of the sources of laughter. Think about it: when’s the last time you had a long, deep belly laugh? We’ve all had them – the kind of deep, convulsing vibration from the pit of your soul that you cannot control.
Take a moment right now to remember a time that you have laughed so uncontrollably deeply that your sides hurt and you couldn’t see through all the tears in your eyes.
Fantastic. That’s not crucial to why I am writing about five types of laughter, but it’s important to remember and enjoy these experiences, so thank you for indulging me, and yourself, in that giggly trip down memory lane.
More often than not, laughter is not generated uncontrollably from the bottom of our gut, but as a response to, or an offering of, social connection. We use laughter for things like:
Let’s look deeper into these five ways that we use laughter:
1) We use Laughter to generate positive attention
The first of our five types of laughter is how we use it to capture the attention of others.
So you’re out on a date and you find yourself looking at this person more than you thought you would. Your eyes seem to be studying their face more than you’re commanding them to and the experience seems to leave you intoxicated. As they speak you find their jokes to be the funniest thing you’ve heard. I mean, how are they so funny?
They aren’t. When infatuation hits, it convinces you that the object of your infatuation is, in fact, the smartest, funniest, and downright best thing in this world, and it does this without your conscious consent. Once you’re in this mode you will work your ass of to get them to respond to you in the same way. You won’t know this, instead you’ll be giggling like a goofball, telling them how smart they are, and discovering a genuine appreciation for their collection of antique nail clippers.
Don’t worry, if they feel at all the same way then this behaviour is actually charming. All the shared laughter is in itself a form of intoxication, and if you’re both getting high off the same supply then you’re in for a wonderful honeymoon phase together.
Of course, you may also be drunk. That has its upsides as well.
2) We use laughter to bully people
The second of our five types of laughter is its use as a weapon.
As I have written about previously, I have plenty of experience being on the receiving end of bullying. This is a situation where the sound of laughter becomes a dentist’s drill that bores down to your deepest and most painful nerves. The exquisite pain of a person laughing at you, definitely not with you, while staring you straight in the eyes and amassing a group of supporters to laugh with them is not an experience I wish to repeat.
This is where laughter comes from a dark place. Used to confirm a dominant person’s place in social hierarchy, this kind of laughter is one of oppression and humiliation. As a youth it’s hopeful to think of when you’ll grow up and this kind of behaviour won’t be a problem any more… but it never goes away. Unfortunately, those that hold this personality trait throughout their lives tend to exert it in increasingly subtle and toxic ways, so be sure to know how to recognize and set limits with yourself and the people around you.
3) We use laughter as a social lubricant
The third of our five types of laughter is the proverbial friendship bracelet.
Ah, the inside joke. As if humour isn’t delicious enough on its own, one of the most wonderful experiences in life is a shared one. When we have a joke among, and between, our friends, it’s a wonderful and heartwarming mix of connection and comfort to share a laugh.
There are many times that laughter itself is the humour. Look at coworkers that talk about the trials and challenges of their day and often times it takes nothing more than “man, this day is making me want to set myself on fire,” and everyone else laughs. I mean, it’s not funny to desire self-combustion over the rigours of the workplace and that is exactly why everyone laughs.
“I am so stressed out I think I might have a heart attack.”
“Ha ha ha! It’s funny because I share that exact same pain.”
For some the function of laughter to connect is such a dependent part of their communication that they have fully integrated the habit and it runs on autopilot. Most of us have known someone that will laugh after every single thing they say as an attempt to: draw attention to their words, find acceptance from a group or individual, or to defuse their own awkwardness.
4) We use laughter as a coping mechanism
The fourth of our five types of laughter is to cope with our own overwhelming emotions.
This is tied to the previous point – when people laugh to reduce the friction of a stressful day, or even the friction of their discomfort with their own social connection, it’s obvious that the laughter is intended as a lubrication to something that is inherently uncomfortable. Pain is an unavoidable part of life, and laughter is an effective way to make it bearable.
There are many examples of discomfort that are massaged with laughter. Some people laugh when they’re embarrassed, some laugh when they’re nervous, some laugh when they’re scared. It’s fascinating to see how people respond to high levels of emotion and laughter seems to be a default mode of operation for some when they are overwhelmed.
This happens both voluntarily or not. We all know somebody that puts in effort to make others laugh when times get tough, and others that can’t seem to stop themselves in the most inappropriate of situations.
5) We use laughter as a release
The final of our five types of laughter is as an escape valve for the intense pressures of life.
Sometimes we use laughter to help us assuage the weight of difficult emotions, and sometimes laughter will find us through these difficulties. Life sure is stressful and confusing. Though there are not easy fixes, there are wonderful moments where our perspective lines everything up just right to see the humor.
I frequently find myself caught up in a moment of stress. I’m rushing to get something… several things… everything moving and finished. All at once, of course. Suddenly in my haste I’ll make a wrong move with my hands at the wrong time and dump all of my freshly ground coffee all over the kitchen floor, counter, inside my slippers…
It’s at that moment I notice that I have a choice. My temper offers me the opportunity to get mad, further increasing my stress and not solving anything. But my laughter offers me an opportunity as well, and every time I accept that opportunity I find that it bubbles out of me and takes the weight off.
After all, having a slipper full of coffee sounds like a fairly privileged problem anyway – that of someone in the good fortune of having a nice coffee to make in the morning.
Many people, if not every person, knows the sweet release of laughter. Perhaps, then, this mode of laughter is more accurately described as finding us rather than us using it; it seems to meet us in the middle unexpectedly, like a gift from the most innocent part of us.
Laughter is one of the most magical parts of our experience.
The depth and breadth of its utility on our lives is nothing short of impressive. It is one of the first things we learn to do, and it’s one of the first signs of connection to and comprehension of the world. Summarizing it into five distinct slices is by no means conclusive, but offers a moment to reflect on its diversity.
Among that diversity, of course, it has its negative sides as well. In the same way that you can use a bag of candy hearts to beat someone to death, every tool is only as good as the person who uses it. But looking at the Bright Side, whether it’s used to heal or to harm, laughter reminds us all that we are alive and connected.
Thank you for looking into this with me. Tell me, how does laughter affect your life? Do you laugh at horribly inappropriate times? Do you fart uncontrollably every time you laugh? Does someone you know have a great sense of humour but a laugh that ruins it? I’m curious to hear your stories and perspectives on this universally and undeniably human part of us.
Cheers, my friends, and keep on the Bright Side!