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Why should we be laughing?

18 August 2020 - Dr Jan Orman

Those of us who are not upset are in the minority and are probably using old-fashioned denial to help us cope.

Maybe what we all need now is to use a little more humour to help us cope in a difficult world!

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that we all need to join the deniers or the conspiracy theorists. Its just that humour is a much more mature and realistic defence than denial so maybe we would all benefit, even now,  from spending a little time purposefully finding the funny side of life.

We’ve known for quite some time that increasing our endorphins is good for our mental health. As I understand it there are four main things increase human endorphins – laughter, exercise, sex and chocolate. (Did I make that last one up? It seems a bit too good to be true!) I’ll leave the last three for you to consider because I want to talk a little more about laughter.

Who else is laughing?

Do you know that there are animals other than humans who laugh? Not kookaburras, who laugh to declare their territory, or hyenas, who laugh because they are frightened, but animals whose laughter seems to indicate that they are experiencing pleasure. We are not alone!  These laughing, pleasure-seeking animals include all four of the great apes (chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas and bonobos) and, believe it or not, rats!

A couple of decades ago investigators discovered that young rats have a call (a chirp), too high in frequency for human ears to hear, and that they emit  that chirp during pleasurable experiences. Those pleasurable experiences include rough and tumble play and being tickled by human hands.

It’s interesting to read about the experiments that showed that rat chirping was associated with pleasure, but even more interesting to learn about the changes in rat behaviour that occurred when the young rat pups were tickled.

Rat pups who experience tickling (or “heterospecific hand play” in tech-speak) bond to the human hand that tickles them and those pups selectively approach the remembered tickling hand rather than other human hands that enter their enclosure. Adult rats who have been tickled as pups chirp more in adulthood and pups choose to spend more time with adults who chirp more.

What does this mean for us?

If I can be so bold as to extrapolate from rats to humans (I know that’s more of a stretch for some humans than others) these findings may also tell us something about how we need to interact with our children even in these difficult times. We can’t afford to expose them to uninterrupted misery any more than we can afford total immersion in that misery ourselves. We need to remember to include play in their lives for their sakes as well as our own.

Let’s watch some comedy as well as the news, lets engage in playful activities with friends and family (Monopoly anyone?) and let’s laugh whenever we can. Humour and laughter provide a very healthy alternative to our human tendency towards denial as a psychological defence.


I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy the other endorphin producing activities but laughter is, after all, more socially inclusive than sex, more fun than exercise and a lot less fattening than chocolate!


Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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