As director of Laughterlines Coaching, Lisa Sturge is something of an expert on laughter. Here she shares 10 unexpected facts, taken from her new book Laugh.
1. Early humans laughed differently
One reason our ability to laugh evolved was associated with the relief of tension, worry, anxiety or threat. After a near miss with a dangerous animal, our ancestors may have laughed to help release trapped tension in their muscles and skeletal structure.
Primitive laughter also originated in periods of satiation and relaxation, signalling a sense of wellbeing within the group and lengthening periods of play, enjoyment and community. Laughter is a highly contagious activity and our brains respond positively to the sound of laughter, even if we don’t actually participate.
Smiling evolved from a need to show others that we were not dangerous: flashing our molars was a way of demonstrating submissiveness and a desire to show allegiance.
2. Laughter predates humour
The act of laughing pre-dates humour, which developed much later alongside the evolution of a larger social brain and spoken language.
Our ancestors gradually learnt how to punctuate speech sounds with laughter so it became the complex and effective communication tool we use today.
Laughter stimulated by jokes became a positive acknowledgement of verbal play amongst humans.
3. Laughter is genetic
Laughing is a genetic, inbuilt reaction, which usually develops in infants around three to four months of age.
Blind, deaf and sensory impaired children learn to laugh, indicating that laughter is not dependent on the learning environment; it is an innate skill we can all possess.
Laughter is a physiological response that activates a plethora of beneficial reactions in the body. It is a whole body process, which has many benefits for our health and wellbeing.
4. It improves mental functioning
Laughter improves our mental functioning as it suppresses the stress hormones and releases relaxing and soothing neurotransmitters.
These help to calm us on the inside, give us mental clarity and allow us to think more creatively. When we laugh regularly we are more inclined to take risks, be more adventurous and stay resilient in times of strife.
Laughing acts as a brain refresh; helping to improve our memory, concentration and allowing us to approach challenges with renewed energy.
5. You should practise laughing
When we focus on something it becomes more prominent. Practising laughter daily helps our laughter to become natural and easy and close to the surface of our lives – more accessible. Laughter becomes a well-known friend and ally, in joyful and troublesome times alike.
We will never be bored if we can turn on our laughter tap. Laughter is like a muscle; the more we use it, the stronger it gets. Practising laughter helps to transform it from a conscious, voluntary exercise to natural, involuntary, spontaneous laughter that bubbles up from within.
6. A genuine smile is known as a Duchenne smile
Image via CT Esthetic
This is when it reaches and engages the muscles around the eyes (their Latin name is orbicularis oculi) as well as the muscles around the mouth (zygomaticus major).
7. You can join a laughter club
Laughter Yoga clubs have sprung up all around the world to encourage people of all ages to join together to laugh on a regular basis. The laughter clubs foster friendly connection with others, a sense of belonging, fun, exercise and wellbeing.
Laughter clubs unite people and create laughter communities where laughter can be practised, explored and enjoyed by many in a safe and nourishing group environment.
The Laughter Yoga exercises are easily adapted to the differing needs and physical capabilities of the participants and are therefore inclusive in their nature.
8. Laughter can be relaxing
"Tension is who we think we ought to be; relaxation is who we are" - Chinese Proverb
Laughter relaxes and re-balances us. It releases our mind, our muscles and our grip on life. When we laugh we can shake off the tension, worries and frustrations that weigh us down. Laughing reduces the size of our fears and renews us to the core. It stabilises situations and creates distance between us and our problems. It brings clarity, fresh perspective and renewed energy to old habits.
After laughing heartily we flow into an experience of peace and relaxation that is sublime. We often sigh deeply, releasing any remainders of tension as our bodies enjoy the deep sensations of relaxation, tranquillity and serenity. It is important to notice and savour these feelings; allowing the body to settle after its aerobic laughter workout and to return to stillness.
We cannot be laughing all the time; to enjoy the full effects of laughter we also need to rest, to be quiet, to lie undisturbed and to access silence. Taking time to be still after laughing brings a sense of interconnectedness, deep wordless peace and a sense of oneness.
9. Operatic exercises can encourage gentle laughter
Breathe with exaggerated expression and feeling, as if performing in an opera, wave your arms about gently in rhythm with your breathing. Smile broadly and savour each gorgeous intake of oxygen and smile, feeling it nourish your body.
Make a loud sigh or musical note on the exhale. Imagine this is the most wonderful breath you have taken today.
10. Laughter had to evolve
Laughing is an ancient, universal communication tool that has been in existence for at least 10 million years. It originated during play within primate groups: today chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos all make laughter sounds when tickled.
Laughter evolved before speech as a way of communicating and strengthening bonds within families of primates. As the sounds developed further, they became a way of ‘grooming at a distance’ and enhanced the cohesiveness of the community.
Gradually, laughter sounds developed into longer breaths as bipedalism (walking upright) allowed our primate ancestors to stand on two feet, thus freeing the thoracic cavity and enabling them to enjoy greater breath control and acoustic range.
Humans laugh on the outward breath, compared to apes and chimps who laugh with shorter ‘panting’ breaths, both on the inhale and the exhale. We have developed this elongated ‘ha, ha, ha’ acoustic exhalation pattern to our laughter structure (unique in the animal kingdom) due to greater freedom of movement of our larynx, thorax and diaphragm.
Taken from Laugh by Lisa Sturge (Quadrille, £7.99) released 4 May 2017
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