Parents of newborn babies learn quickly there are many different ways for a baby to cry. One type of cry means the baby is hungry, another says the child needs to be changed and yet another may mean it simply wants some attention. Though these cries may seem indistinguishable to an outsider, parents learn to respond with exactly what their child needs.
Parents don't tend to put as much thought into what their child's laugh might mean, unless it's so diabolical that it clearly indicates an attack on another sibling. In fact, very few people think about differences in laughter at all.
According to expert Robert Provine, laughter is specifically a social structure, something that connects humans with one another in a profound way [source: Provine]. According to his findings, people are 30 percent more likely to laugh in a social setting that warrants it than when alone with humor-inducing media [source: Provine]. That means that you're more likely to laugh with friends while watching a comedy together than when you're watching the same show or movie by yourself.
Though there are many ways to laugh, from giggles to guffaws and from chuckles to cackles, it turns out that we humans laugh for many reasons, some of them odd. And it's more than just the latest David Sedaris book or episode of "Saturday Night Live" that has us doubled over -- 90 percent of our laughter has nothing to do with somebody telling a joke. [source: Trump].
So what are some of the different types and reasons for all the laughter?
At the end of a long day, you find yourself in the elevator with your boss. Instead of talking up your latest accomplishments, though, you find yourself laughing at everything he says.
Though you may think you sounded like a fool, you probably did just fine. People rely on laughter to get along with others, so whether we're with our boss or friends, we tend to laugh at things that just aren't funny.
In a study of laughter episodes, Provine found that people tend to laugh at perfectly bland statements like "Can I join you?" or "See you later" [source: Provine]. Laughter could have developed in our ancestors before full speech, so the sound is merely a way to communicate and show agreement.
And if you're trying to ascend the corporate ladder, you're not the only one laughing at the boss. We tend to laugh with anyone who can help us out, which is why a group of undergraduate students may guffaw at a professor's bad joke, while a job applicant's attempts at humor may fall flat with those who are already gainfully employed.
Imagine you're out for dinner with a group of friends. Someone tells a joke and gets one person laughing, which gets a second person laughing, and so on. Is catching laughter like catching a cold? It's very likely.
Provine, the laughter researcher, found in one experiment that nearly half of his 128 undergraduate students giggled on first response to a simulated laugh [source: Provine]. And they did this despite knowing the source to be an artificial laugh-simulator.
According to Provine, contagious laughter raises the possibility that humans have laugh detectors. In other words, people are made to respond with laughter on hearing laughter itself, much like the mystery of spreading a yawn [source: Provine].
There are times when we need to project dignity and control, like during presentations to the CEO or during a funeral. Unfortunately, these are the times when uncontrollable nervous laughter is likely to strike.
During times of anxiety, we often laugh in a subconscious attempt to reduce stress and calm down. However, nervous laughter usually just heightens the awkwardness of the situation.
Nervous laughter is often considered fake laughter, to the point that a 1909 article in the New York Times advised women to stop this kind of laughter immediately. The article, which recommended spanking young girls who were developing such a bad habit, told women that once they broke themselves of nervous laughter, they would wonder how people even stood their company before [source: New York Times].
My, how times have changed.
Belly laughter is considered the most honest type of laughter. It may also be the hardest type to experience, because we have to find something truly hilarious before we'll let go with the kind of laughter that has us clutching our bellies and gasping for air.
Of course, that's not the only description for true belly laughter; as you might guess, we all laugh differently. In a study conducted by Vanderbilt University, researchers found that men are more likely to grunt or snort at something they find funny, while women let loose with giggles and chuckles [source: Vanderbilt].
It's good to take note of what tickles your funny bone, however, because it just might save your life. In the 1979 book, "Anatomy of an Illness," Norman Cousins writes of how he used laughter to fight an illness that doctors told him was near incurable.
Cousins wrote, "Ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep" [source: McCarthy]. Cousins turned to the Marx Brothers and "Candid Camera" and experienced a full recovery.
Those of us who work in cubicles may think that silent laughter is a skill we've perfected so that we can look at funny Web sites and videos at work. Mindfully practicing silent laughter, though, can have real benefits because it involves the same type of deep breathing that comes with belly laughter.
One woman who works as a clown in a children's hospital explained to Canadian Living that teaching sick kids the art of silent laughter enabled them to go back to sleep after waking up from a bad dream [source: Van Dyk]. The children got the calming benefits of the rhythmic exhalations without waking up any roommates.
This type of laughter is also practiced in laughter yoga and laughter therapy, where it's often called joker's laughter. To try it on your own, freeze your face into a smile like the Joker of Batman fame, then let your belly do the work of pushing air in and out as if you were laughing out loud.
Let's face it, life can be tough sometimes. Whether you're on a tight deadline with the boss breathing down you neck or you're sitting in rush-hour traffic and your car's A/C is on the fritz, the end of a workday doesn't mean everything's peachy keen. Muscles still tight? It's a sign you're still carrying the stress of the day.
Stress is one of the most important reasons to find something humorous. Laughter is a sure cure for stress [source: Van Dyk].
Stress builds tension in the human body, and that tension has to go somewhere. Usually it's the muscles.
So what to do? Yes, you could get a massage, but have you ever considered a good laugh? Stress-relieving laughter can encompass many forms, but it's usually found in an outburst, much like belly laughing.
Say you're out for a walk with a friend when something falls from the sky: pigeon droppings. You're splattered, but your friend is untouched. This event is anything but funny to you, yet your friend can't stop laughing. Is this pigeon laughter?
Not quite, unless your friend is laughing in a very specific way. Pigeon laughter, which is often practiced in laughter therapy or laughter yoga, involves laughing without opening your mouth. By keeping your lips sealed, the laughter produces a humming sound, much like the noises a pigeon makes.
It's also been compared to the humming of bees, so if you're still angry at those darn pigeons for dropping poop on you, feel free to call it bees' laughter.
When you aren't actively trying to practice the art of silent laughter, odds are some kind of sound will occur when something strikes your funny bone. Most laughter is, after all, a string of vocal ha-has or ho-hos.
But what if you're one of the roughly 25 percent of women or 33 percent of men who laugh through the nose? Then you'd be a snorter [source: Vanderbilt].
We all knew the kid in elementary school, the one who blew milk out his nose when the class clown cracked jokes in the cafeteria. You can guess his kind of laughter.
If this is your kind of laughter, you're either blowing air out or sucking it in through the nose when you laugh. There's nothing wrong with this -- but you may want to drink in sips for those times when your friends try to catch you off guard with a new joke.
No, the next type of laughter on our list isn't something you can find on a grocery store isle. Canned laughter is another term for what's commonly referred to as the "laugh track."
Canned laughter is real laughter -- it just happens to be laughter taken completely out of one context and placed in another [source: Farnham].
Because of laughter's social connection, television producers understand that placing canned laughter over the soundtrack to programming increases the chance of an audience finding humor in the material -- or at least laughing in response to it [source: Farnham].
Of course, the laughter has to "sound" genuine to the audience; humans can quickly tell the difference between genuine and fake laughter.
You've probably heard some motherly person say, "It isn't polite to laugh at others' expense."
That probably hasn't always stopped you, either. Let's face it: Whether you were a bully in school or the kid getting picked on, you've found yourself breaking this rule at some point.
We may think of cruel laughter as insensitive and out of touch today, but it's been around for a long time [source: Morreall]. In the late Middle Ages, for instance, there's record of residents buying a condemned criminal from a different town just so they could enjoy quartering him themselves [source: Morreall].
Add to that derisive laughter's place in ancient texts. It appears several times in Homer's "Iliad" and even in the Bible [source: Morreall].
A study that wasn't even about kissing turned out to (sort of) explain why we kiss with our eyes closed. HowStuffWorks explains.
- Archive of American Television. "Sixty Years Ago Today, 'The Hank McCune Show' Debuted on NBC -- Ushering in the Laugh Track on Network TV." Sept. 9, 2010. (March 18, 2012) http://www.emmytvlegends.org/blog/?p=197
- Asian Economic News. "Laughing their way to good health." April 30, 2001. (May 11, 2009)http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0WDP/is_2001_April_30/ai_73852620/?tag=content;col1
- Chapman, Anthony J. and Hugh C. Foot, ed. "Humor and Laughter: Theory, Research and Applications." Transaction Publishers. 1996. (May 11, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=FSgteXd9HJUC&printsec=frontcover
- Furnham, Adrian, Ella Hutson and Allastaire McClelland. "The Effect of Gender of Canned Laughter on Television Programme Appreciation." North American Journal of Psychology. Vol. 13, no. 3, pages 391-402. 2011. http://www.freepatentsonline.com/article/North-American-Journal-Psychology/274955408.html
- Griffin, R. Morgan. "What is Laughter, and Why Do We Do It?" WebMD. (May 11, 2009)http://men.webmd.com/features/why-we-laugh
- Hargis, Owen D.W., ed. "The Handbook of Communication Skills." Routledge. 1998. (May 11, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=IVSxsljxndsC&printsec=frontcover&dq=handbook+of+communication+skills
- Longstaff, Ben. "It's all fun and laughter for giggling girls and grunting guys." New Scientist. Sept. 29, 2001. (May 11, 2009)http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg17123101.500-its-all-fun-and-laughter-for-giggling-girls-and-grunting-guys.html
- McCarthy, Susan. "Laugh Track." Salon. Sept. 8, 1999. (May 11, 2009) http://www.salon.com/health/feature/1999/09/08/laughter/index.html
- Morreall, John. "Taking Laughter Seriously." State University of New York Press. 1982. (March 18, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=AZDijPlKlZYC&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=snort+laughter&ots=YVl595P2Q3&sig=rrq7BrJc5YUOTeKZRhE7DpaiIvw#v=onepage&q=snort&f=false
- Ong, Anthony D. and Manfred H.M. Van Dulmen, ed. "Oxford Handbook of Methods in Positive Psychology." Oxford University Press. 2007. (May 11, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=J-56UuMY9CkC&printsec=frontcover&dq=oxford+handbook+of+methods+in+positive+psychology
- New York Times. "Suppress a Nervous Laugh." Aug. 22, 1909. (May 11, 2009) http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9A0DE2DE143EE033A25751C2A96E9C946897D6CF
- Priyadarshinia Academy. "What Happens During Laughter Therapy Session." (May 11, 2009)http://www.priyadarshniacademy.com/laughter-therapy/what-happens.html
- Provine, Robert R. "Laughter." American Scientist. Vol. 84, no. 1. Pages 38-47. Jan.-Feb. 1996. (March 18, 2012) http://cogweb.ucla.edu/Abstracts/Provine_96.html
- Sebastian, Simone. "Examining 1962's laughter epidemic." The Chicago Times. July 29, 2003. (March 19, 2012) http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2003-07-29/features/0307290281_1_laughing-40th-anniversary-village
- Tierney, John. "What's So Funny? Well, Maybe Nothing." New York Times. March 13, 2007. (May 11, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/13/science/13tier.html?_r=2&scp=3&sq=laughter%20power&st=cse
- Trump, Eric. "Got the Giggles? Join the Club." New York Times. July 27, 2002. (May 11, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/27/arts/27LAUG.html?scp=2&sq=madan%20kataria&st=cse
- University of Chicago Press Journals. "The First Laugh: New Study Posits Evolutionary Origins of Two Distinct Types of Laughter." ScienceDaily. Nov. 22, 2005. (May 11, 2009) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/11/051122184228.htm
- Van Dyk, Dee. "Living better through laughter." Canadian Living. (May 11, 2009) http://www.canadianliving.com/health/mind_and_spirit/living_better_through_laughter.php
- Vanderbilt University, Vocal Acoustics Laboratory. (March 18, 2012) http://www.psy.vanderbilt.edu/faculty/bachorowski/laugh.htm
- Walters, Stan B. "The Truth about Lying." Sourcebooks. 2000. (May 11, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=lHjfnY_deO0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=truth+about+lying