Laughter is one of the great pleasures in life. It is also complicated as in addition to its traditional role in humour, it sometimes takes on a social role when it becomes an altogether more serious matter.
In the world of humour, laughter is probably at its most pleasurable when it gets out of hand. Is there anything better than when laughter simply takes one over as in a laughing ‘fit’; Here the laughter becomes uncontrollable and spreads to involve the whole body. For several minutes, otherwise staid adults lose control (myself included, and the last time was only a few weeks ago). Somehow, and for reasons of pleasure, normally functioning neural networks simply go awry. Suddenly, and sometimes without obvious warning (although a conducive environment is a great help), a joke has us in stitches, bent double, creased up, guffawing, tummy muscles hurting, tears streaming down our cheeks, breathing with difficulty, unable to complete sentences and rendered incoherent. Such fits are most commonly shared. At a comedy show this may be with hundreds; more commonly it is with just two or three good friends. Here, those affected momentarily enter a private world in which all else fades into the background. Those not in on the joke don’t matter, even become invisible. Moreover, and in my own experience, if someone were to ask the afflicted to stop in mid ‘fit’, the request would probably go unheard, and if heard couldn’t be obeyed anyway. A laughing fit has to take its course
Next in the laughing spectrum is what my family calls the ‘nose trick’, a rare and individualised event which one (and that has included me on occasions) performs solo. Here, when downing a biscuit or a cuppa, or both, someone’s clever aside, often sotto voce, can lead to tea or worse backtracking through the victim’s nose. All very unsightly, and things can get worse if the victim is cheered on by an expectant crowd. Again, the nervous system gets very confused as our bodies suddenly chose to override reflexes evolved over aeons specifically to protect against such regurgitation.
Finally there are the more common ‘noisy-but-controlled’ laughter, the ‘quiet’ laughter, and lastly the silent smile. Less disruptive and more restrained than the fit or the trick, these still gives great pleasure. All three are normally seen as community events, and accordingly, someone caught laughing out loud when alone, say when reading a book, will be judged as having lost their mind. So much so that standing alone in the kitchen laughing out load at ‘Sorry I haven’t a clue’ has made me question my own sanity!
Now to ‘social’, or is it ‘political’, laughter? This has nothing to do with jokes, and much to do with diplomacy and manipulation, and how I deplore them both! Probably the better recognised is ‘polite’ laughter. Here the individual, or sometimes an audience, force a laugh when some dignitary or colleague has told a joke that is either unfunny or not understand. Why we choose to do this is not clear but I imagine it is part of some power game. Through laughter there is some ingratiation. Not exactly a new observation – in Candide, written some 250 years ago, Voltaire describes a village priest as so revered that everyone called him ‘Sir’ and laughed at his jokes. For my part, I squirm when I think of the occasions that I have made ‘polite’ laughter.
Linked, but the converse, is the laugh aimed a masking some unpleasant reality. I assume this is done for some perverse pleasure, some power trip. One of my senior colleagues at university (it is always done by the senior in the relationship) was known by the students as ‘smiling death’ because he would smile, or even chuckle, before giving bad news to them or sometimes even to patients.
Finally, amongst the social laughs is the ‘vulnerability’ laughter, and again it is part of a power relationship, and I deplore it for that very reason. It is the gentle, almost bashful, laugh that some (more commonly women) make before saying something about which they are unsure or they feel might attract criticism. I always see it as saying, ‘please don’t tell me off if I get this wrong’. This mannerism may well start in childhood. Last week I overheard a five year old child reading aloud to her father, and the tell-tale giggle preceded each word of which she was unsure.
Laughter is universal, is wonderful fun, and is baffling. Perhaps the social form of laughter, which is based on power relationships, gives us a clue as to what it is about. Could it be that once we have established that we are in a safe environment, laughter allows us a moment of vulnerability when we can forget about, or escape, or ignore, the incessant struggles of life. Here I am assuming that these struggles are the equivalent of a power relationship between individuals and their environment. If this is true, it also suggests that having a mechanism for relieving tension, such as laughter, has proved of great evolutionary value.
Whatever its underlying purpose, I find ‘fun’ laughter a real tonic, and fortunately, as I get older, bouts are coming more readily. The problem for me is that now, when the laughter develops into a fit, it hurts more. But that I can live with.