Whatever way you choose to laugh, it’s one of life’s simplest joys. This portrait series explores laughter in its many iterations and explains the science behind the smile.
Chuckling, chortling, snorting, cawing, giggling, guffawing, cackling, spluttering, roaring, howling, shrieking—regardless of our backgrounds, one of the few unifying traits we share as humans is our ability to laugh (and sometimes our inability to stop). It’s one of the simplest free activities that life can afford us, but have you ever stopped to think about why we laugh? Why do these squeaky sounds emit from our throats at every sighting of a comically small dog or misplaced toupee, and why does it feel so good?
There’s an entire field of scientific study dedicated to answering this question. Gelotologists, who study laughter and its effects on the body, believe that we’ve evolved to laugh as a kind of social cue (as we do with its counterpart, crying). It endears us to others and helps show empathy. For example, if we were to snigger together over some lewd cave paintings back in prehistoric times, we would feel more connected and less likely to spear someone over a saber-toothed tiger carcass.
Laughing is also good for us: Studies have shown that it opens up the blood vessels to increase blood flow, decreases inflammation in the body, lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol and releases those happy chemical endorphins into our bloodstream. Oddly, these things happen regardless of why we’re laughing, even if it’s a reflexive instinct in times of high emotion, anger or stress (which would also explain why a good cry feels brilliant every now and then). Some people call this “relief theory,” and it also explains why we can’t stop laughing when tickled, even though we’re often in agony. There has even been speculation that groups as vast as the Han Dynasty in China to the Ancient Romans used feet-tickling as a form of torture.
Perhaps Mark Twain was right when he said, “Humanity has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter.” So let’s use it for good.