Laughter solves a serious human conundrum: how to keep our minds and social lives elastic

A man is walking down the street, he slips and falls. Hilarity ensues. Why are benign blunders of this nature almost always funny? Stumbles, gaffes, slipups, bloopers and general clumsiness indicate both a lack of versatility and of awareness: ‘where one would expect to find the wideawake adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being’, we find instead ‘a certain mechanical inelasticity ‘.

It is no accident that we laugh exclusively at other humans, and that laughter is a communal experience: its purpose, or ‘function’ is social. In addition, it isn’t by chance that laughter requires a temporary shutdown of our emotions: though pleasurable, laughter is above all punitive. We instinctively know that there are situations in which it is best to refrain from laughing. Those who choose to ignore these unspoken rules are immediately sanctioned. This is not to say that it’s impossible to laugh in times of hardship. In many cases, humour appears to serve as a coping mechanism in the face of tragedy or misfortune. On his death bed, Voltaire allegedly told a priest who was exhorting him to renounce Satan: ‘This is no time for making new enemies.’

Laughter is the best medicine

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