Last night I was watching my two-year-old toddler have a full-fledged laughter attack. I am talking ears-turning-red-tears-in-eyes-not-stopping-to-take-a-breath laughter. What caused his peals of laughter – a very hungry mommy wanted to eat him. This got me wondering, what makes us laugh? Note: Chuckles, giggles and polite smiles are disqualified. We are talking serious belly laughs in this blog.
Laughter is a funny business. Sorry about the cliché, but it is true. What makes me hold my stomach and laugh may at best elicit an empathic chuckle from you. Let me give you an example, I googled ‘World’s funniest joke’ and this is what came up:
“Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence; then a gun shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, “OK, now what?”
There it is! The funniest joke that had people around the world doubling over with laughter, at least according to Wiseman. I re-read this joke, scratched my head, read it to my husband and … nothing. Not even a half-smile. Perhaps, it is just me, but when you put the words – ‘World’s’ and ‘Funniest’ together, I was hoping for the guffaw of a lifetime. There is so much that goes into that light-hearted moment – context, culture, attitude of the listener, attitude of the teller, making laughter simply a state of mind. There is so much cognitive functionality associated with this gleeful expression that you wonder if it can ever be spontaneous, right?
Not so fast, I came across this video, a viral marketing campaign from Coca-Cola in Belgium. I double dare you to watch this with a straight face. Laughing is contagious. Watching my toddler laugh so heartily last night, had me laughing in no time too. First it was a “Yay, I got him to laugh” laugh, then it was laughing at him laughing, and soon I was thoroughly enjoying pretending to devour him. But there it was, plastered all across my face, in this case, my entire body – shaking, uncontrollable laughter.
I remember back when I was sharing an apartment with a German girl, we went out shopping one day. We were at a store and a pretty, well-dressed woman was walking towards the store. You know us girls, we were checking out what she was wearing. Clearly, a fashionista she was aware of the attention and turned up her swagger a notch. That is when it happened. A loud, thunderous bang! She had walked right in to the store’s glass door. It happened so fast but since we were just at the entrance of the store on the inside, I could see her cheeks rattling from the bang. Being polite by nature, I walked over, opened the door for her and asked her if she was ok. Clearly she was shaken. I looked around to see my flat mate and she was curled up on the floor, gasping for breath. It took me awhile to realize she was laughing, uncontrollably so. Her pale white skin had turned into deep, beet red. What fascinated me was how unapologetic she was about her laughter. So much so, she stopped to catch a breather, looked at the poor fashionista’s face and then ventured off again into squeals. Turns out, this could be a cultural influence. Germans are notorious for finding hilarity in someone’s misfortune. The concept is called schadenfreude. Going off the number of hits prank videos get on youtube, we are guilty of schadenfreude too.
My favorite variety is laughing at yourself. When I first moved to the States, I would get irritated when I saw Indians depicted with a horrible accent in all the TV shows. Yes, Indians have an accent but it is not like we all sound like Apu from the Simpsons. I realized that is the single-story they are used to. That is their exposure to how Indians speak just like my version of average American girl was the ‘valley girl.’ We all hate stereotypes but we all use it as a reference point in our heads. Now, I use the exaggerated accent to break the ice with strangers, co-workers and clients. Works like a charm, every time.
In the end, here is my conclusion – let us not take laughter so seriously. It doesn’t matter what the reason (yes, even the one where you are laughing at someone’s brief misfortune), the fact that you get to shed inhibitions and get to laugh no matter how ridiculous you look (which BTW is topic for a whole another blog – the way people laugh), is in and by itself a treasured moment. Enjoy it. Live it. Laugh it off. And don’t forget to leave a comment with what makes YOU laugh.