Laughing is a wonderful human trait that we all share. It is something we do from earliest childhood and something that benefits us in many ways.
- Physically, laughter relaxes skeletal and cardiovascular muscles. The rapid breathing associated with laughter increases oxygen level and improves respiratory function.
- Psychologically, laughter has been associated with reduction of stress and anxiety as well as improvement in mood, self-esteem and coping skills.
- Cognitively, neuroscientist, Scott Weems tells us that humor is like exercise for the brain. It necessitates insight and flexibility because it involves following the thread of the story and then enjoying the surprise, the pun or the unexpected. It is delightful when you realize from a child’s giggle that they “ get the joke” and heartwarming when the elderly are still “getting it” and laughing.
- Socially we know that laughter invites connection and is contagious. If you enter a room where everyone is laughing, before long there is a good chance you will be laughing even without knowing why. Some feel that the purpose of laughter is to strengthen human bonds.
Whereas men and women both enjoy humor and benefit from laughing, there are some interesting gender differences.
- Have you ever noticed in a social situation of men and women that women may be witty or funny; but men are the ones who actually tell the jokes?
- I myself have said and have often heard women say to a male friend or partner, “Hey – tell that joke about…” Rarely have I heard a man say, “ Hon, tell that joke about…”
- In fact, I have heard more than one man interrupt his wife when she is in the middle of a joke with the comment “ Wait, no…let me tell this.” Most women eagerly hand it over.
Culture and Expectations in The Difference
It seems that men are more comfortable and better at telling jokes. Notwithstanding some outrageously funny female comedians, male comedians dominate the comedy shows and live circuit.
- This difference may reflect cultural and gender needs and expectations. Research finds that women are more attracted to men with a sense of humor and men are more attracted to women who appreciate their humor.
- Considering this difference and commenting on the greater number of male comedians, female comedian Fran Leibowitz adds,
“ The cultural values are male; for a woman to say a man is funny is the equivalent to saying that a woman is pretty. Also, humor is largely aggressive and pre-emptive, and what’s more male than that?”
Women Laugh More
- The balance to the fact that men generate more laughter by telling more jokes is the finding that women laugh more.
- In a large study on gender and humor, Robert Provine had men and women observed by his assistants in natural settings to compare the degree to which men and women laugh.
- In the course of a year and 1,200 case studies, he and his researchers found that while both sexes laugh a lot, females laugh more. In fact, women talking to women generated the most laughter.
- In conversations between men and women, females laughed 126% more than their male counterparts, meaning that females do the most laughing while males do the most laugh-getting– something which begins in childhood. The class clown is usually male.
The Role of Neurochemistry
In his consideration of these differences, Scott Weems, author of HA!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why invites us to look at neurochemistry. Studies show that when you compare the MRI’s of men and women laughing, there are similarities but there are also differences.
- When rating cartoons as funny on a scale from 1 to 10, women’s brains show more activity in the region of the brain responsible for producing words. They also show increased activity in the dopamine or reward center of the brain.
- For women, the funnier the joke the more the activity. For men, activation remained moderate for all jokes. The interpretation is that women listen with more openness and are thus more pleased. Men, the joke makers, may carry more expectations and experience less delight as the recipients of humor.
A recent study published in Social Neuroscience for the first time found this same difference in the brain activation of 22 boys and girls between the ages of 6 to 13 years old.
- In the study, the girl’s brains were more activated by the jokes and the boys were more activated by positive themes.
- The authors report this as the first of its kind study to establish that a link between gender-related brain differences and appreciation of humor already exists in childhood.
- They propose that it may suggest that women are attracted to men with a sense of humor as potentially desirable as mates and as such men from early on are more wired to make others laugh and appreciate their humor.
Humor and Sustaining Relationships
One of the observations made by Robert Provine in his studies of humor and gender is that whereas both men and women may smile when they are alone, they both really only laugh when they are with someone else.
Laughter really is the shortest distance between two people and as such is an important source of connection, intimacy and sustainability for partners.
Scott Weems reports that:
- Nine out of ten couples consider humor as an important part of their relationship.
- Compared to partners in dysfunctional relationships, those in strong ones appreciate their partner’s humor more.
- Couples together for more than forty-five years claim that laughing is crucial for marital success.
Maybe there are important reasons for the similarities and seemingly complimentary ways that men and women differ when it comes to humor and laughter.
Maybe it is important to remember,
“ We cannot really love anybody with whom we never laugh.” (Agnes Repplier)
Listen in to Psych Up to hear Scott Weems discuss “ HA! The Importance of Laughter”