In my study of my five senses, I’m exploring how our five senses keep us attuned to other people. Nothing matters more to us than other people! Other people are safety—and danger.
For one thing, we’re always listening for people. From the moment of birth, we prefer sounds that are like speech, and in the brain, vocal sounds generate more neuronal activity than non-vocal sounds.
We learn a lot from listening to a voice. From a brief listen, we can make good guesses about a stranger’s age, health, education, background, personality, and social status; we can tell if that person is tired or drunk. We recognize hundreds of voices, and with people we know well, we recognize their voices after just a few words, and whether they’re in a good or bad mood, sick or in good health.
For connecting with other people, we have conversation, and we also have laughter. I’m surprised by how often laughter is ignored in works that examine speaking and listening, because laughter is a universal human behavior—and it’s all about engaging with others through sound.
It turns out that the main purpose of laughter is to bind people together. We’re far more likely to laugh when we’re with other people, and we’re more likely to laugh when we’re with friends than with strangers. Alone, we might smile or talk to ourselves, but laughing is something we do to send a signal to others. It’s highly contagious.
Shared laughter strengthens relationships, breaks tension, makes people feel included, and creates a warm emotional tone—but every medicine can become poison, and sadly laughter is also an instrument of ridicule, humiliation, and exclusion.
When we think of laughter, we might imagine a comedian cracking jokes from a stage to an appreciative audience, but this isn’t how laughter usually works.
Laughter is mostly a sign of connection rather than humor, and most laughter comes not in response to jokes or formal attempts to be funny, but during ordinary, not-particularly-funny conversation. I was surprised to learn that in ordinary life, speakers laugh far more than the spoken-to; speakers laugh almost 50% more than their audiences.
Because laughter is a such an important form of engagement, I’m very interested in bringing more laughter into my life.
I’ve read two fascinating books on the subject, The Levity Effect: Why It Pays to Lighten Up by Adrian Gostick (Amazon, Bookshop) and Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas (Amazon, Bookshop). (You can listen to the interview that Elizabeth and I did with Aaker and Bagdonas in episode 314 of the Happier podcast.)
Now I’m trying to devise exercises for myself. What can I do to bring more laughter, more light-heartedness, into my life—and in this way, engage better with the people around me? (And by “around me,” I meaning talking to me over Zoom or sitting next to me at the kitchen table.)
There’s a theme here. Every year, I pick a one-word theme for myself, and one year I chose “Lighten Up,” and Elizabeth’s choice last year was “Lighter.”
To raise the amount of engaged laughter in my life, I’m trying to follow several strategies:
- point out the ridiculous (never in a mean way)
- cultivate inside jokes—as writer, actor, and director Mindy Kaling points in Why Not Me? (Amazon, Bookshop): “The private joke would get boiled down to a simple phrase…the phrase alone could uncork hours of renewed laughter. And as everyone knows, the best kind of laughter is laughter born of a shared memory.”
- make callbacks, that is, make an illusion to a previous comment or joke
- join in when someone else laughs, or at least show some response
- don’t rush to continue a conversation if people are laughing; linger in the moment
What are some other concrete strategies for cultivating a light-hearted spirit and more laughter? What works for you?