Sophie Scott, “Professor of Laughter”, joins Paul Mayhew-Archer and Andy Hamilton for “Laughing in the Face of Death” on the evening of 5th November – more details on the Diary of Events page. Here Sophie explains how vital laughter can be in every situation-
Nearly 20 years ago, when he was mortally ill and knew it things were spiraling very rapidly downwards, we were hanging around with my dad waiting for something to happen at the hospital. He was desperately ill and the (French) doctors were explaining that there was nothing they could do. Except, as it turned out, stop the meds they’d just put him on, and to which he was having an abreaction that was killing him: they didn’t do that for another day or so (and he did survive).
So with nothing happening and Dad getting worse by the minute, we were sitting around and stressing and Dad was silent. Me, my mum, my dad, all lost to their own thoughts. Dad suddenly said “we’ve laughed a lot, haven’t we” and I agreed we had and at the time, I thought little of it: partly because it seemed an odd thing to say and partly because it was true. He did laugh a lot, and he made other people laugh a lot.
Then, I was a young post doctoral researcher working on human communication, and over the next couple of decades I have worked more and more with laughter in a science context. It’s been an interesting journey and now I feel like my dad really was onto something: it does matter that we laugh. Not only because it feels good – though it does feel good: when we laugh we get a bit of an endorphin ‘kick’, just like a runner’s ‘high’ – and this causes us to actually change our tolerance of pain. We get measurable reductions of our sensation of pain when we have been laughing. We also get a reduction in adrenaline levels, and cortisol levels, which is an index of our becoming more relaxed and less stressed when we laugh.
It also matters when and with whom we laugh, as laughter is a primarily a social behaviour. We are thirty times more likely to laugh when we are with someone else than when we are on our own, and most of the time we are not laughing at ‘jokes’: instead we laugh at statements and comments, and we are as likely to be laughing because we understand, agree with or can see the implications of a comment. We laugh because we know some one, we feel affiliated to them, we like them: we might even love them. Babies laugh when their parents interact with them, children laugh when they are playing with each other, and adults laugh when they are with other people.
Very interestingly, laughter is an index of the strength of very close relationships: the more couples laugh together, the happier they are in their relationships, and couples who deal with stressful situations with laughter become less stressed, and over a longer time course they stay together for longer. Both of these findings only work, though if both members of the couple laugh together – the laughter has to be shared. If it isn’t shared, no one becomes less stressed, and it’s not a great sign for the relationship. So laughter is a great way of managing emotional states, with the people you are close to (I would be very surprised if this were limited to romantic relationships), but that laughter has to be something you do together.
So my dad really was right – if you can look back on a life of shared laughter (notably, he didn’t say “I’ve laughed a lot, haven’t I”) then you are looking at a lot of understanding, agreement and shared social bonds, as well as a lot of close positive emotion and probably a lot of love. And even at his funeral (several years later) it made sense to laugh – from me trying to make my mum laugh before the service started to the people in the Savoy Chapel laughing, when we remembered his unstinting and inexplicable dislike of Yootha Joyce. And we are right to try and laugh in these situations – not only may it help us feel better, but it lets us do so together. Indeed, it only really works if we all laugh together. Laughter is about more than just jokes. Laughter is more serious than that.