Less optimistic and happier?


In order to research the difference optimism, it must be defined in a measurable manner. One of the ways that some researchers measure it is by explanatory style. For them optimism is based on how much credit you take for success, and how much you blame failure on external events.[1] According to Cathy McFarland and Michael Ross, people with higher self-esteem, which often accompanies optimism, tend to use self-serving attribution. In other words if they fail, it was because the task was too hard. If they succeed it was because of their own talent, intelligence, and hard work. This pair of researchers from the University of Waterloo did a study to see how much this self-serving attribution affected moods. Indeed, the people who were led to believe that success or failure was based on themselves were happier when they succeeded and more glum when they failed. Those that attributed success or failure to the difficulty of the task did not have such mood swings.[2]

So optimism, as measured by how you explain successes and failures, should go hand in hand with happiness. Well maybe this is true for a short experiment, but not when optimism is measured over a lifetime. A study of optimism in German adults from 18 to 60+ found that the younger adults had the sunniest outlooks and expected their life to improve the most. Middle age adults were a bit more realistic, and older adults predicted the greatest decline in their satisfaction with life.[3] However, a study from the University of Chicago that looked at depth at who was happiest in America found that older people were. [4]

Now possibly the difference between living in Germany and America could affect the outcome of this research. However, both studies looked at huge samples of the population, groups over 1000 in size. Each study was based on the answers to a few questions, a simple rating of happiness or prediction of future satisfaction with life. So now the researchers are busy trying to explain why increasing in age results in both a more pessimistic outlook and increased happiness. Some ideas are that as people age they gain better social integration skills, they have learned to be content with who they are or perhaps their memories just gloss over past pains. So is the true cause of happiness high self-esteem or forgetfulness? Perhaps the secret to being happy really is to expect less.

[1] Peterson, Christopher; Seligman, Martin E. P. Vaillant, George E. Pessimistic Explanatory Style Is a Risk Factor for Physical Illness: A Thirty-Five-Year Longitudinal Study, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1988, Vol. 55, No. 1,23-27
[2] McFarland, Cathy; Ross, Michael. Impact of causal attributions on affective reactions to success and failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 43(5), Nov 1982, 937-946.
[3] Lang, Frieder R. Weiss, David. Gerstorf, Denis. Wagner, Gert G. Forecasting Life Satisfaction Across Adulthood: Benefits of Seeing a Dark Future? Psychology and Aging © 2013 American Psychological Association 2013, Vol. 28, No. 1, 249 –26
[4] http://news.uchicago.edu/article/2008/04/16/age-comes-happiness-university-chicago-study-shows#sthash.vsWQpdwp.dpuf
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Does pessimism shorten or lengthen your life?

576px-Woman_in_Old-Age_Home_-_Mariana,_Minas_Gerais_-_Brazil (1)

Frequently I have read anecdotal accounts of people who were sure that they were going to beat a life threatening disease (usually cancer) against the odds and managed to do so. Often they would give credit to their optimistic attitude that kept them fighting. There is not much thorough research that looks at long term effects of optimism and pessimism on health. However, there was one notable study that followed 99 men from age 25 to 60. Each man’s optimism was rated based on the way they explained bad events. If they thought that the cause of bad events were unstable, specific to the individual events and external to them rather than a result of their action, they were judged as optimists. Those who held the other view – the cause of bad events was stable, global and related to themselves – were labeled pessimists. Of course like most studies on this subject they drew from a pool of subjects that would tend to have a larger number of optimists who assumed they had better than average prospects, namely students at a prestigious private college. In this case it was Harvard [1]

These researchers (Peterson, Seligman and Vaillant) found that a pessimistic attitude predicted poorer health from ages 45 through 60. They were unable to pinpoint the specific cause for this. Some suggested reasons were lower immune system or less support from other people. Evidently pessimists are not as popular among their peers, or perhaps they just don’t want to rely on other people as much. The pessimists definitely made more frequent visits to the doctor. However, as these men reached their fifties the correlation between poorer health and pessimism began to fade. The study did not follow them beyond their sixties, but one wonders if this trend would continue.

Another study on health, longevity and outlook on life was conducted by Frieder R. Lang, of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany. According to his research people who have low expectations for the future are more likely to live longer. His study was only ten years long and consisted of a much larger and diverse population, 40,000 people from ages 18 to 96. Each group were asked questions to predict how satisfying life would be in five years. Then, five years later they were asked the question again and again at the end of ten years (if they survived that long). For the oldest group, 65 and above, over 40% predicted life would be less satisfying than they actually found it five years later. This group had fewer disabilities than those that thought their life would be better than it turned out to be. Of course, just like the study on the health of Harvard men, the researchers had had only guesses as to why this occurred.

“Pessimism about the future may encourage people to live more carefully, taking health and safety precautions.”[2]

However, I have my own ideas. This second study did not measure optimism or pessimism as much as it measured how well people could predict their future satisfaction with life. It may not just be an unfulfilled pessimistic forecast that results in healthier, longer lives. The fact that these aging people found themselves healthier than their peers may have led them to become more satisfied. In the same way those who suffered more disabilities would abandon an earlier optimistic attitude and be less happy with their lives. Most likely the decline in health had more of an effect on attitude than attitude did on health.

 [1] Peterson, Christopher; Seligman, Martin E. P. Vaillant, George E. Pessimistic Explanatory Style Is a Risk Factor for Physical Illness: A Thirty-Five-Year Longitudinal Study, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1988, Vol. 55, No. 1,23-27
[2] Lang, Frieder R. Weiss, David. Gerstorf, Denis. Wagner, Gert G. Forecasting Life Satisfaction Across Adulthood: Benefits of Seeing a Dark Future? Psychology and Aging © 2013 American Psychological Association 2013, Vol. 28, No. 1, 249 –26


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How well do you know yourself?

Acon 2011 (1)b

In my most recent article about optimism I described research conducted at the University of Waterloo in Canada on self-esteem. Surprisingly Lead researcher Joanne Wood found that giving positive pep talks to oneself only raised the mood of those people who already thought well of themselves. This technique actually backfired for those with low self-esteem.  One additional thing that I might mention about this research is that the subjects were reminded to think how loveable they were by hearing a bell ring every 15 seconds. I don’t know about you, but to hear a noise consistently reminding me to change my thoughts seems more like the equalitarian dystopia in Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron than anything else.

Is it possible there is a lot more that contributes to the level of self-esteem and therefore to an optimistic or pessimistic bent that we do not consider? One of the seven intelligences according to Howard Gardner is intrapersonal intelligence. This is the ability to to consciously deal with one’s own inner world of thoughts and emotions. A person with intrapersonal intelligence spends a lot of time considering why they think and feel what they think and feel. There is another name given to this trait. It is call private self-consciousness. Stephen Franzoi of the University of California at Davis has studied the effects or private self-consciousness. People scoring high in this measure have a more detailed and accurate self-knowledge. They are more likely to self-disclose about their problems in periods of distress, but tend to do so in a low key manner that will not push social acquaintances away. They are also more likely to be depressed.

A series of studies on how people shift between optimistic and pessimistic outlooks (Hazlett and Molden) has concluded that people may choose the outlook that has the best motivational value for them. People that are concerned with promoting their growth and advancement not only tend towards optimistic forecasting, they do better at tasks when they adopting an optimistic outlook. People that work towards the twin goals of safety and security, emphasize preventing bad events from happening. Conversely they perform better when adopting a pessimistic outlook.  Of course all that the people in this research were performing was finding the solutions to anagrams.

However it is interesting to note that if the participants were encourage to think thoughts counter their natural tendency, either negative or positive, they were less persistent in trying to crack the anagrams. This research does not support the “logical” argument that people who are pessimists are prone to give up and stop trying. It seems what researchers are describing is a normally optimistic person taking a pessimistic view, because this does lead to lower persistence. If optimism and pessimism really is a trait and part of a person disposition, we should be wary of teaching people to change a way a thinking that has been adopted because it actually works better for them.

Hazlett, Abigail and Molden, Daniel C. Northwestern University. Aaron M. Sackett, University of St. Thomas Social Cognition: Vol. 29, No. 1, pp. 74-96. 2011
Derlaga, Valerian J , and Berg, John H. eds. Self-Disclosure: Theory, Research, and Therapy
Slavin, Robert (2009) Educational Psychology, p. 117 ISBN 0-205-59200-7


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The problem with positive pep talks

Eggs_Expressions_Happy_Sad1After centuries of  philosophers, and in more recent times psychologists, coming up their own set of personality factors a symposium in the 1980s settled on what are called the “big five” which are commonly found in  most summaries of personality traits. Four of the traits were supposed to be positive: Openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion and agreeableness. The last one, neuroticism, was tied to unpleasant emotions and anxiety.

The four positive traits have not remained as the ideal psychological state. For one thing a person high in openness to experiences seeks novelty and variety which are avoided by the conscientious person who prefers  planning and dependability. Even agreeableness if overdone can result in spinelessness.

Finally, we have come to accept the fact that less energetic and outgoing behavior of an introvert is not a sign of poor mental health, and removed it from the Diagnostic Standard Manual used by mental health professionals. Telling introverts to blurt out everything that comes to their mind and never retreat to solitude does not work because it does not fit their psychological needs. In the same manner it is exhausting for an extrovert to spend hours silently concentrating on work.

However, neuroticsm still has it’s bad reputation. It is often closely linked with a pessimistic life view that is on the look out for the next unpleasant event. So the tendency has been to encourage the “glass half empty” people to pep themselves up with positive self talk. If optimism and pessimism are really parts of a persons disposition, this kind of advice might not be useful at all.

A study from the  University of Waterloo in Canada found that repeating positive affirmations made people who already had low-esteem feel worse about themselves. The group was divided into two, with the control half writing down whatever crossed their mind for 4 minutes. The other half were instructed to do the same thing with the addition of thinking a positive though about themselves each time a bell was rung.  After 4 minutes both groups answered a battery of questions about their mood and self-esteem. People with high self esteem exhibited a more positive mood if they were in the group giving themselves affirming themselves every time the bell rang. But those with low self-esteem were in a better mood if they were allowed to write without the intrusion of the self pep talk.

According to Joanne Wood, the  Lead researcher and professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo:

It appears that positive self-statements, despite their widespread endorsement, may backfire for the very people who need them the most.

But have we ever considered that the people with low-esteem are leery of the illusion of positive self-feed back? Not only do they not need it, they do not want it. They may function better in an environment in which a less than optimal view of one self is accepted.

Joanne V. Wood, Ph.D, Should we re-think positive thinking? Giving ourselves pep talks may backfire.Published in Regarding Self-Regard. March 20, 2009



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The origins of optimism

Steph _OC2_edited-2Optimism and pessimism are not two distinct styles but rather ends of a continuum. At the optimistic end people expect only good events to happen to them. They concentrate on stimuli that indicates a rosy outlook and ignore warning signs of unpleasant possibilities. At the pessimistic end people expect bad events to happen to them and become preoccupied with signs that something is going wrong.  Recently we have been told the further one is on the optimistic side, without reaching the oblivious dysfunctional state of being unable to see any pitfalls, the better life is.  Look at the all the benefits that some psychological researchers claim to have found for people who are higher on the optimism scale; they are purportedly happier, healthier and make more money.

However, careful examination of these claims show that social support[1], health, higher income[2] and optimism are really a cluster of characteristics that are frequently found together. This means that optimism could be the result of a popularity, good health and a good paying job, rather than the cause. Or there could be something else that contributes to all of these.

Research that suggests that optimism originates from having a supportive family with a higher than average economic standing[3]. Long term studies from the department of psychology at the University of Helsinki in Finland have shown that parental styles do have a measurable effect on the long term attitudes of children including their level of optimism. The mother’s own satisfaction with life, child rearing attitudes and opinions about the child’s temperament had very strong correlation with the daughter’s self-esteem which is tied to an optimistic outlook. The mother’s attitudes did not have as much effect on their sons.

However when it came to the influence of the family’s socio-economic status (SES), the child’s gender did not seem to cause a difference. The lower the family SES, the more likely their children were to grow up to be pessimists. Even when adults moved up in education and occupational status from their family of origin, their optimism did not increase as much as a person who had these benefits growing up.

Think about this logically. A child doesn’t have any influence in choosing their gender, their parent’s attitudes or their parent’s income and social status. So if a person’s environment is more likely to influence their level of optimism, than their attitudes are to influence their environment what is the purpose of promoting optimism as a benefit?

Think about this second question logically. Rare is the individual who is contented with his or her life. Most of us are seeking something better, so we listen to people who have found something that sounds like it may work. Whether or not we find a better life using their proposed method or not, the promoter usually gain something such as a certain amount of fame and another source of income.  Are we seeing an increasing number of people selling other people on the idea that optimism is beneficial in order to gain for themselves those things that optimism is supposed to provide? Has the promotion of optimism simply become another business?

[1] House, J. S., Landis, K. R., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science, 241, 540−545.
[2] Lorant, V., Deliège, D., Eaton,W., Robert, A., Philippot, P., & Ansseau,M. (2003). Socioeconomic inequalities in depression: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Epidemiology, 157, 98−112.
[3] Heinonen, K., Räikkönen, K., & Keltikangas-Järvinen, L. (2005). Dispositional optimism: development over 21 years from the perspectives of perceived temperament and mothering. Personality and Individual Differences, 38, 425−435.
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Destined for optimism?

Picture 012a3

There has been an academic debate going on between psychologists since Shelly Taylor published Positive Illusions asserting that the normal mentally healthy person holds on to optimistic illusions. Are most humans not realistic in their view of themselves and the their future? According to psychologists Shelly Taylor and Jonathon Brown:

 “One dilemma that immediately arises is that, as noted earlier, many formal definitions of mental health incorporate accurate self-perceptions as one criterion. In establishing criteria for mental health, then, we must subtract this particular one.”[1]

There has been some pushback to asserting that a realistic view of one’s self is not a basis of mental health. Critics have contended that this research showing that the normal person perceives themselves as better than average in ability and future outlook was a result of using an elite population, namely students in prestigious private universities, to conduct research. [2]

However, others such as neuroscientist Tali Sharot, concur with Shelly and Brown. Sharot has summarized research on this topic in her easy to read books (such as The Science of Optimism – Why We’re Hard –Wired for Hope) aimed at the general public. In her attempt to answer the question why the majority of humans have a built in tendency to be more optimistic than realistic, Sharot claim that optimism is adaptive. In others words, a rosy view of the world makes it easier for a human to survive and reproduce. Much of her theory is based on research showing that people that believe they can overcome a life threatening illness against the odds, such as cancer, are more likely to do so. [3]

Does unrealistic optimism really provide an advantage, or is it simply a popular idea to sell books? Let’s look at the major advantage optimism is supposed to provide. According to Sharot, low expectations are not a good idea because those with great hopes for the future will keep trying despite setbacks due to the belief that they will be successful, while pessimists will simply give up.

A study by Charles S. Carver et al also asserted that:

 “…People who are confident about eventual success continue trying, even when the going is hard. People who are doubtful try to escape the adversity by wishful thinking, they are drawn into temporary distractions that don’t help solve the problem, and they sometimes even stop trying.[4]

It sounds logical, but you must remember that the reason Taylor saw optimism as an illusion is that the majority of people have far less control over events than really exists. They predict outcomes better than actually occur. Personally, I would also like to know how to distinguish the difference between unrealistic optimism and wishful thinking? The two terms seem very similar in my mind.

Carver’s research indicated that although optimism was considered a personality trait, it sometimes was not very stable. In a study that measured the optimism of students in law school to determine this would affect success in their careers (as measured by how much money they made) researchers found that:

 “the change in that study was mainly in the optimistic direction and was predicted by increases in social resource.”

In other words as former students climbed up the socio-economic ladder, they became more optimistic. So again optimism is shown as increasing in a study done among an elite group, students in law school.

However according to Sharot it is all really based on point of view.

 “Research shows that whatever the outcome, whether we succeed or we fail, people with high expectations tend to feel better. At the end of the day, how we feel when we get dumped or win an award depends mostly on how we interpret the event.”[5]

So is it simply a matter that optimists are happier with their circumstances? Or is it more closely related to the socio-economic standing which would fit the profile of most students in elite universities and law schools. We really need to measure if optimism rises and falls in cycles that mirror economic growth? If research on optimism continues to be done mainly on populations that are likely to succeed because they already have an advantage we will never know.

[1] Taylor, S. E. & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. , American Psychological Association, Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193—210.
[2] Colvin C.R., Block J. Do positive illusions foster mental health? An examination of the Taylor and Brown formulation. Psychology Bulletin. 1994 Jul;116 (1):3-20.
[3] Sharot, T., The Science of Optimism – Why We’re Hard –Wired for Hope
[4] Carver, Charles S., Michael F. Scheier and Suzanne C. Segerstrom. 2010. “Optimism.” Clinical Psychology Review 30:879-89.
[5] Sharot, T. The Science of Optimism – Why We’re Hard –Wired for Hope
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You can dream it, but you will probably never do it.

Мечты_Стеллы_МарисHow many times have you heard “if you can dream it, you can do it?” Well evidently if you can dream it you consider yourself happier, even if you never get around to doing it. And you are also similar to the majority of people who continue to believe things will get better despite never accomplishing their dreams.

Psychologists and researchers have been intrigued at how people continue to hold on to unrealistic views of their future. According to psychologists Shelly Taylor and Jonathon Brown positive illusions are fairly common in normal thought and fall into three categories:

  • People see themselves in an unrealistically positive manner as shown by the fact that the majority of people assume that they are “above average” in many areas
  • People assume that they have more control over environmental events than they actually do
  • People see the future as turning out better than data indicates it will

Taylor and Brown’s research indicated that established criteria for judging mental health included contentment; caring for others and its corollary, caring about others; ability to do productive and creative work; openness to new people; and receptiveness to new ideas. Most crucially they noted that a person’s mental health is judged on exhibiting a positive attitude concerning oneself, also known as having high self-esteem.

Self-esteem typically comes from how an individual believes other people view him or herself. This means our current view of mental health is based a curious conundrum. People tend to believe others view them highly, when in reality others view them as less able than themselves. As this contradiction becomes evident, people spread the high appraisals to those within their immediate group.

Taylor and Brown also found that research showed that people see their friends in a more positive light than the average person. In fact close friends are given more credit for success and less blame for failure than those outside one’s group. This means the average individual assumes that his or her immediate acquaintances are better than average, just like he or she is. Now we come to our second conundrum. This bias seems to be the opposite of openness to new people and very similar to the idea of prejudice against those outside of one’s group.

It is ironic that an unrealistically positive attitude about oneself which results in a sense of group superiority has been deemed “healthy” in the twentieth century. However, the ability to sustain these optimistic illusions is generally considered an indication of good mental health. Previously psychologists have asserted that a realistic self-assessment was necessary for this, but that would leave much of the world’s population being deemed as lacking in mental health. So the illusion remains and we are content to keep dreaming, without doing, just like almost everyone else.

Photo: “Мечты Стеллы Марис” by Stella Maris – https://500px.com/photo/86751947/in-dreams-by-stella-maris. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Taylor, S. E. & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. , American Psychological Association, Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193—210.
Taylor, S. E. & Brown, J. D. (1994). Positive Illusions and Well-Being Revisited Separating Fact from Fiction, Psychological Bulletin, American Psychological Association, Vol. 116, No. 1, 21-27
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The prejudice against pessimism

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You would think that having an accurate view of yourself, your situation and others around you would contribute to mental health. Well-adjusted humans are supposed to see the world realistically, and believing illusions is considered a hallmark of mental illness. But it is simply not that way. People tend to filter information in a positive light, and society rewards this. Evidently believing illusion makes humans happier. So the average view of reality is actually overly optimistic.

Our manner of gathering data is not at all based on logical and unbiased observation. We gather a piece here and there and fill in the blanks with our own self-serving prejudices. As humans, we interpret what we see to be advantageous to ourselves. This viewpoint colors almost everything we observe. We tend to live our lives viewing the world around us and ourselves with an enduring pattern of bias.

We know we all make mistakes, right? But we view our own errors as small as inconsequential, while we tend to view our successes as more spectacular than they really are. This is reflected in personality tests in which people judge themselves to have far more positive traits than negative. It seems that you really do not have to teach children to have positive self-esteem, as most people rapidly take to that tactic. Also people tend to forget incidents where they exhibited negative behavior. Therefore the question “What is the biggest mistake you ever made?” is not so difficult to answer because it embarrasses us. It stumps the typical person because their memories tend to forget that mistake.

In psychological experiment in which people must predict whether or not they will fail or succeed in a task, they err on the side of assuming success. And there is that pervasive tendency for the majority of people to respond to surveys indicating they see themselves as happier, smarter, and more able or well-adjusted than the average human. Of course it is not logically possible for most people to be better than others. So why do we cling to this illogical view? Why do we label those who have more balanced in self-perceptions as low in self-esteem, or moderately depressed?

In the following weeks I want to look at our prejudice against pessimism. What exactly drives it? Is it simply a fade of our times or has it always existed? I want to examine this tendency for most people to fail to see themselves as they really are, and look down on those who do.

Alicke, M. D. (1985). Global self-evaluation as determined by the desirability and controllability of trait adjectives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 1621-1630.
Campbell, J. D. (1986). Similarity and uniqueness: The effects of attribute type, relevance, and individual differences in self-esteem and depression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 281- 294.
Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (1984). Social cognition. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Nisbett, R. E., & Ross, L. (1980). Human inference: Strategies and shortcomings of social judgment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Watson, D., & Clark, L. A. (1984). Negative affectivity: The disposition to experience aversive emotional states. Psychological Bulletin, 96, 465-490.
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Faking funny

Feb 071 laughter Everybody loves the sound of laughter don’t they? The muffled giggle, the high pitch twitter, the polished chuckle, the wheezing chortle, and the deep belly laugh can all be taken differently depending on who is uttering the sound. Real involuntary laughter is often contagious in groups, one person catches on to a joke and others join in with rounds of laughter that rise and fall. But faked laughter is more common in everyday life. It typically serves a type of social interaction and can be used to smooth over differences, appease a person perceived as more important, to draw attention to oneself or increase group cohesion by aiming guffaws of scoffs at an outsider.

A common use of the manufactured laughter, which tends to be slower and more nasal in tone, is to bond with other people. However, faked laughter is only appealing if we actually like the person doing doing it. I heard a guy comment once that a particular group of girls were not attractive enough to be giggling so much. He understood their artificial laughter as a kind of flirtation, and was uncomfortable with it because he did not find them appealing.

According to studies conducted by UCLA associate professor Greg Bryant, most people can only distinguish faked laughter about two/thirds of the time. Detection is based on the “breathiness” of the laugh, which is composed of the vocalized sound, “ha, ha, ha” and rapid breathing. The slower the laugh is the more we hear the vocalization and the more controlled the breaths seem; both are cues for detecting faked mirth.

And there is a third kind of laughter – the insidious, haunting kind of laughter. What makes it different from the other two? It hints of insincerity because the breathing is clearly controlled, unlike the gasping of real laughter, and it is often marked by pitch that trails downward. However, the situation does affect our opinion. A genuine deep belly laugh at what the rest of us consider revolting or grotesque, still seems very twisted.

Bryant’s studies are based on idea that many animals use laughter to indicate playfulness similar to a real human laugh. Most people are familiar with the hysterical sounds made by chimpanzees. But what do they find so outrageously funny? Usually nothing. Their laugh is used to ease social situations. Did you realize that dogs, also have a way of chuckling? You may not be able to perceive it because it is much more like wheezing than human laughter. However you do not have to worry that your dog is poking fun of you. Dogs use chuckling to appease others, just like people do.


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No one wants to laugh alone

DSC_3033c Just beyond the door of my office a photographer was setting up a lights. He was also chatting with everyone who passed by. Finally he got down to the business of spreading out the tripods that held the lights. Then, I heard a clunk and soft crunch followed by a giggle from the resident of the office next to mine that keep on going. Even though I didn’t see, I didn’t have to wonder what was so humorous. The photographer told the story to every upper level manager that came to pose for their business portrait.

“I was setting up the lights quickly, and didn’t bother to move the boxes they came out of. At one point I over extended myself and landed on the box. I didn’t think anyone saw and then I heard the laughter that keep coming.” The photographer told the story chuckling at himself much of the time.

I understood the purpose of his self-effacing humor. He wanted the harried executives to relax and look more pleasant, and his humorous little story helped. If he had actually hurt himself the woman in the next office wouldn’t have laughed so much. What is interesting is how we spontaneously laugh at someone else looking very foolish in a manner that tends to actually bring us closer together. Chuckling serves as a social glue and we often laugh at something that is not really funny at all.  As researcher Sophie Scott begun to study expressions of emotions and in particular laughter she found that the person who typically does most of the laughing during a conversation is also the person that does most of the talking. It appears being mirthful is a way of trying to maintain social relationships.

Most of us are familiar with fake laughs – chuckles and giggles interspersed in conversation when nothing funny is said. Scott studied not only the difference in sound of these forced laughs but also the difference in the way that the brain responds to this kind of laughter versus the authentic kind. Interestingly response to different kinds of laughter is based more on the relationship with the person than whether the laughter is faked or real. If we dislike a person, their frequent faked laughter will strike a note of discord.

Most important in Scott’s research on the social aspects of humor is that people prefer comedy when in groups, in fact the larger the group, the more people tend to laugh. When my daughter was younger, we started watching “America’s Funniest Videos” – an almost endless parade of short video clips showing people slipping, sliding, missing a step, or whatever would cause a fall. Sometimes these were punctuated by trying out ridiculous ideas, such as the preschool teacher who tried to hang a piñata on an emergency sprinkler head and ended up showering the eagerly awaiting little ones. However as she got to be a teenager when it was no longer cool to hang out with parents, she still wanted keep up this ritual. Laughing is just not as enjoyable if you are not laughing with someone else.

David Robson, Why do we laugh inappropriately? BBC Future 23 March 2015

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