Laughing is one of the strangest things that human beings do. Everybody has their own way of doing it, but the basic act is a series of short barks and staccato breathing that other people instinctively respond to — sometimes with laughter of their own. It seems to be social and it usually feels good, but there’s a lot we still don’t know about the benefits of laughter. For instance, why do people laugh until their eyes water or they’re red in the face and short of breath? Why are some jokes funny, while others fall flat? And what is it about chickens crossing roads that does this to us? Read on to learn about the benefits of laughter and more.
What Are the Benefits of Laughter?
What does laughing tell us about ourselves? Whatever the cause of the bout you’re having at the moment, what is the point of it all, and is it good for you? Do you know what it means when you can’t stop laughing, or when your laughter is unconnected to anything you’ve seen or heard? Can laughter be a sign of a problem? While there’s still a lot to be discovered about this odd human activity, we do know a few interesting things about the psychology and health benefits of laughter.
Why Do We Laugh?
The act of laughing seems to be something that evolved as a social signal to other people to indicate we’re in a good mood and/or harmless, yet there’s a lot more going on under the hood here. The brain handles the various types of laughter in several regions, which involve multiple pathways, to produce the whole-body effects of laughter. A giggle, in other words, is neurologically different from holding your sides and heaving with a belly laugh. Both can be triggered the same way, and they’re both partly voluntary and partly not. But the phenomenon is complex enough that a laughing reflex can start up for almost any reason and in almost any intensity — and for as long as your body can take it.
What Usually Causes Laughter?
That said, some things are definitely more likely to get a laugh than other things. Professional comedians are experts at guessing what will get a crowd of strangers to do this in unison. Jokes are the obvious first thing that can make people laugh, and the social bonding of sharing a joke is one of the most apparent benefits of laughter for nearly everybody.
Other Situations When You Might Laugh
You’ve probably laughed on other occasions, even when nothing particularly funny seems to be going on. You might laugh when you’re nervous or uncomfortable, such as when somebody says something wildly inappropriate or when you’ve made a social gaffe and feel others’ eyes on you. You could laugh when you hurt yourself, or when you’re in extremely serious trouble, such as after a car crash or when you’re getting bad news from the doctor. Sometimes people laugh at others’ misfortunes, such as falling down the stairs, not because they think it’s funny but to relieve the tension and fear they feel for the other person. This can easily be misinterpreted as a cruel sense of humor, just as laughing when you’re angry might come across as terrifying to people who don’t know you well.
When Is Laughing a Sign of Trouble?
All these causes of laughter are interesting, to be sure, but they’re also relatively ordinary experiences to have. Nearly everyone has laughed at a joke, and most people have let out a nervous chuckle during awkward moments before or have wound up laughing in pain, laughing from fear or laughing when uncomfortable. There are some times, however, when inappropriate laughter can be a sign of a medical or psychological disorder. In some of these cases, the mechanics of why people laugh is partly understood, while for others it’s still mysterious.
Pseudobulbar affect is a troubling condition that makes people burst out in laughter for no obvious reason or in response to inappropriate stimuli. Sudden and uncontrollable laughing (or sometimes crying) can take over all of a sudden, and it’s basically impossible to control. This condition mostly affects people with traumatic brain injuries and certain neurological disorders. People living with it feel normal emotions, but their outward reaction is disruptive and may give others the impression they have a mood disorder or mental illness. PBA was notably featured, somewhat inaccurately, in the 2019 Joaquin Phoenix movie Joker — though it should also be noted that his character probably also had antisocial personality disorder, and people with PBA are no more or less likely to be violent supercriminals.
Paradoxical laughter is the disorder that PBA is often mistaken for. It is explosive laughter at random or wildly inappropriate times, and it’s often associated with mania, hypomania or schizophrenia, all of which are life-threatening mental illnesses if left untreated. People with this condition are, unlike PBA sufferers, likely to swing wildly and unpredictably between extremes of emotion. They may not be fully able to communicate rationally about what’s happening to them.
All these causes of laughter so far have been the result of emotional, or at least neurological, states of mind. Involuntary laughter, however, seems to be a mechanical response to either brain damage or certain congenital disorders, such as a temporal lobe disorder. The man described in the linked study had several organic brain conditions that impaired his ability to perform mentally demanding tasks. He had been involuntarily laughing for over 20 years, causing his family much concern.
Getting Help Is No Laughing Matter
Laughing is usually relaxing and fun, and people pay to watch funny movies or to listen to comedians make them laugh. If the laughter is inappropriate or involuntary, or if it seems out of proportion to what’s going on, it may be a sign of a serious issue requiring treatment. Restore is a safe place where people can find the mental health services they need to diagnose and treat such issues. The professional care teams at Restore understand the benefits of laughter and good mental health. Contact us today for a confidential consultation about how we can help you to thrive again.