Scientists, normally serious people, are beginning to take it and discover that humour is no laughing matter. Margery Hutter Silver, a neuropsychologist at the Harvard Medical School, studied longevity, and found that people who lived past 100 had a lifestyle with good humour to boot, contrasted with the lifestyles of others that don't.
A 102-year old patient of Margery’s is a fine demonstration of the power of laughter. When interviewed by a television news team on the secret of longevity, a long line of crew vehicles lined up outside her house. Enquired what her neighbours would think, she replied with a laugh, "They'll think I've died."
Dr Hutter Silver hypothesises that a sense of humour or laughter prolongs life as it provides similar benefits to a good workout, which she refers to as "internal jogging".
Laugher raises the blood pressure just long enough to increase the blood and oxygen levels to the tissues. It also modifies the breathing cycle through a forced exhalation of toxic carbon dioxide and increased intake of oxygen levels. Muscles also tense and relax exactly the same way as stress-reduction techniques, for instance, yoga.
Herbert Lefcourt and colleagues at Waterloo University in Ontario recently ascertained that people subjected to humour had improved immune system functioning, producing significant rises in the body's natural defences, such as antibodies in the bloodstream. Yet what was particularly intriguing about Dr Lefcourt's study was that, given something to laugh at, those with a good sense of humour experienced the highest rises in antibody levels.
Recent research has also recognized that electrical brainwave patterns of the right and left hemisphere tend to co-ordinate more as we are subjected to humour. This is important because of evidence that depression is accompanied by less co-ordination in brainwave patterns between the two sides.
What is especially phenomenal about laughter is that some of the latest discoveries confirm some of the oldest notions in laughter. Freud, who wrote one of the unfunniest books in the English Language, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, believed that was an anxiety release mechanism because a joke always has two halves. The first half builds up psychic tension which is then broken by the ridiculous punch line. We are thus able to release bottled-up anxiety safely through a burst of laughter. The punch line however, has to resolve the tension it sets up successfully and surprisingly, - in other words all jokes are really difficulties that have a clever but unexpected answer.