The American comedian Jerry Seinfeld tells a story about how his father, who sold neon signs, would often take him on his rounds of the local shops. Jerry’s father loved funny stories, and never missed an opportunity to tell one to his potential clients. Often, as they got back in the truck, his father would say, ‘We may not have sold anything to that guy, but we sure had a good laugh.’
Laughter has a magnetic quality. As children in the playground we gravitated towards the kids who seemed to be having the most fun (children of five are said to laugh between 20 and 100 times a day). As teenagers, we wanted to sit with the friends who made us laugh. And, later on, in the office canteen, we often wished we were sitting with that group hooting with laughter instead of with our taciturn colleagues or the boss we felt obliged to join.
When I was at college in New York, I remember running into a student from Italy on the underground. We only spent that one journey together but we laughed so much about the shared experience of being outsiders and not understanding American social customs that a strong bond formed, and I can still remember his name today. I know that if we ran into each other again our friendship would still be alive 30 years on.
Laughter can also create unique bonds between people. Susan and Karl have been married for 15 years. Both are studious and serious and neither is considered a joker by their friends, but Susan once let me in on a secret: ‘People don’t consider us to be particularly funny people, but we make each other laugh all the time.’
Like yawning, laughter is contagious and uncontrollable. You only have to watch or listen to someone else laughing hysterically to lose control of your breathing, voice and facial muscles. Before you know it, you’re laughing and feel a rush of lightness, energy and joy.
Laughing can also have health benefits. When we laugh our blood pressure falls, blood and oxygen pass more easily through our coronary arteries and our immune cells increase their defence against viruses and cancer.
Some time ago I asked myself what it was that had led me away from my career as an academic to concentrate on my work as a clinician and teacher. I realised I had made the choice partly because, working as a clinician, constantly in contact with people and immersed in real life, you laugh a lot more than you do in a career limited to academic research. I chose the career path that was conducive to laughter because it would lead to happiness, social interaction and better health – and I’ve never regretted that decision.