When research is a laughing matter

We all know that a laugh is simply an alteration of facial expressions combined with movements of muscles in the body, and sounds and patterns of breathing. While no one knows exactly why we laugh, we do know that the need to laugh is transmitted through the brain and body by our thoughts and senses. Laughing is an automatic human instinct, much like blinking and breathing. We cannot stop a natural laugh, just as we cannot force one. Laughing brings the human species together, as we are one of very few creatures that essentially have the ability to laugh. Although a seemingly simple thing, laughter has been studied as far back as 1900 in very diverse disciplines, such as psychiatry, linguistics, literature, and neuroscience. 

Laughter, being so central to interaction and communication, has a huge impact on the bonding, and nonbonding, of individuals. Although many may believe that people laugh when they think something is funny, that is not always the case. Laughter comes in many shapes and forms. It can be caused by humor, aggression, fear or embarrassment. The sociologist Norbert Elias explored this topic further in Essay on Laughter, indexed in the Web of Science Core Collection, as he enthusiastically dives deep to discover the meaning of laughter and what impressions it leaves behind in diverse cultures.

Not only can laughter impact society as a whole, it can affect the mental and physical health of individuals. Laughter is highly associated with happiness, and it is often stated that happy means healthy. This opinion leads many to believe that laughter is the best medicine, an observation that much research tends to support. While laughing cannot cure diseases, it can apparently help in prevention. Studies have shown that laughing can not only reduce stress, but in some instances can also lower the risk of heart disease. A cross-section study of cardiovascular disease was evaluated in Laughter is the Best Medicine, a 2016 publication indexed in the Web of Science Core Collection, highlighting the association between laughter and lower rates of heart disease among older Japanese women and men.

Laughter in the Web of Science

We looked at the Web of Science Core Collection to understand the research being conducted regarding laughter.

Below, representing a range of disciplines, are the top 10 fields that frequently generate studies on laughter, based on papers indexed since 1900.

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The category of Language & Linguistics has yielded the highest number of publications, which is easily understood because laughter is heavily connected to communication and sociology. Language & Linguistics it is not the most-cited category, though. A 2001 publication in the field of Psychology, titled “Investigations of temperament at three to seven years: The children's behavior questionnaire,” has been cited over 828 times, with more than 140 of these citations recorded in the last four years.  The report examines child development, with laughter being one of 15 primary characteristics studied in children three to seven years old.

After analyzing the many publications indexed in the Web of Science Core Collection, we’ve noted a boost in the frequency of research activity. From 1974 to 1975, there was an increase of 30 records, which palpably started the steady rise in the trend of studies on laughter. For the past 20 years, from 1997 to the present, more than 100 studies have been published each year, with a record of 454 for 2015. As the health benefits of laughter continue to be studied, as well as its role in interpersonal and societal interaction, and as life reliably presents us with the joys as well as the challenges that provoke laughter in all its forms, we can be assured that the trend of laughter research will continue to increase.

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*The number Web of Science-indexed items on laughter published each year from 1997 to 2017.

Keep on laughing!