Saving the day with a smile

sEvery April 1st I write about humor. You are welcome to search this blog from several years back and verify.  Today, I want to focus on the evolutionary advantage. Why do we smile? Why do we laugh? How does it help us? Can we really save the day with a smile? You are welcome to read more here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  In fact, today I will try to fill this article with links and keywords (for you to find links) so you can practice your research and speedreading as well as other positive qualities.

Prior to the 20th-century philosophers discussed the nature of humor a lot, but they did not have the right tools to understand it. New studies show the evolutionary and social impact of humor, addressing animals and people with various cosmetic surgeries.  I think this area of science will be revolutionized by AI in the near future. Until then, I rely on more conventional studies.

Rats can laugh

Laughter and smiling are limited to very few mammals, like apes and dogs.  Dolphins and rats can laugh but not smile. This has something to do with their jaw structure. Once some quality is common to several mammals from early in mammalian evolution, we can safely suspect the limbic brain. Years ago I thought that the cause of laughter is expelling the water to avoid drowning, but I think it was fake news.  Animals laugh when tickled, so it is a social issue. Research on rats suggests that laughter is modulated by opioid receptors, which may explain some similar qualities.

Fake it till you make it

We understand that happiness, real or induced by tickling, can make us smile. Research from the University of South Australia provides evidence that the act of smiling can trick your mind into happiness, simply by how you move your facial muscles. We may feel bad not just because facial expressions reflect how we feel, but because they contribute to how we feel.

This is not a fool-proof scheme. Not all smile is real. Both we and dogs can smile with our mouths but not with our eyes. Abused dogs occasionally smile with their mouth, but their eyes reflect stress and fear and this is incredibly sad. Smiling dogs do not show teeth. Teeth are a sign of aggression in dogs. Only primates show teeth when happy.

Smile is beautiful

Michael Lewis and his research team at the University of Cardiff in Wales found that people who received cosmetic Botox injections compromising their ability to frown reported being happier than did people who could frown normally. The researchers administered an anxiety and depression questionnaire to 25 females, half of whom had received frown-inhibiting Botox injections. The Botox recipients reported feeling happier and less anxious in general; more important, they did not report feeling any more attractive, which suggests that the emotional effects were not driven by a psychological boost that could come from the treatment’s cosmetic nature.

Studies on people who cannot smile as a result of some medical condition are perceived as less social and less trustworthy. So smiling has some social advantages.

Unless your face is stuck in a smile. Then all bets are off. Joker is an embodiment of a fear of clowns. A similar character appears in “The Man Who Laughs” by Victor Hugo. Such a character is a frightening challenge to all social norms.

A recent study of swiss dentists shows that smiling makes people look more attractive. Smiling increases socially perceived attractiveness and is considered a signal of trustworthiness and intelligence. There is a linear correlation between how wide we smile and how attractive we perceive ourselves to be. This is especially true for young women.

But we already knew. Dating profiles with a smile are significantly more effective than dating profiles where we are serious, which in turn are more effective than profiles without any image at all.

A sign of openness

Studies have shown that countries with more immigration smile more. It makes sense that nonverbal communication would be of greater importance when a common verbal language cannot be relied upon. This affiliative smile is particularly useful for those who do not already have a strong social network and/or community. When people express this type of smile, they are perceived as more approachable, more genuine, and more trustworthy.

Humor is often used as a tool by diplomats, therapists, and the rest of us. Humor has the function of facilitating intimacy and warm relationships. With humor, people can bury their fear, but they can also bravely address their greatest anxieties.  While some humor is used to show off personal wit, genuine usually comes from a positive place. Even when the humor has an aggressive component, it is usually directed not toward the socializing parties, but toward some common threat.


Once we start smiling, we feel more resilient. This can be seen in multiple parameters – more theoretical and philosophical than empirically measurable.

  1. A good sense of humor makes us feel better about ourselves, acting effectively as positive self-talk. This is called “superiority theory”
  2. Laughter arising from relief, surprise, or joy releases stress and anxiety. When rats are ticked they laugh. Tickle is a friendly gesture. Cats can play with rats, but they are unlikely to tickle the prey.
  3. We deal with contradictions and dissonances in our lives by laughing. This is called  “The incongruity theory”.
  4. Self-deception makes us laugh, since we are creatures with very peculiar habits.  Laughing at these habits is a social function. How else can we deal with the resulting confusion? Cry?
  5. Diplomacy uses humor both as a social lubricant and as a sharp weapon. Satire in the right hands can be very powerful.
  6.  Zen masters teach that it is much easier to laugh at ourselves once we have transcended our ego. At the highest level, laughter is the sound of the shattering of the ego.  And this is a sign of transcendence.

These ideas are very powerful and beautiful. They deserver more reading, but they are not empirically sound. I am not sure anyone has a good idea to test some of the more profound understandings. So they make me smile…

Use humor as your own instrument

You can instead use humor as your own instrument.

  1. Include time in your schedule for fun and playfulness as yet another tool against burnout
  2. Be present in the moment, even if uncomfortable. You can always use humor to transcend the confusion.
  3. Actively tell jokes and act funny, especially on days dedicated for such festivities. Jews do this on Purim, Russians on New Year. April 1st is another great opportunity.
  4. Use satire as a critical thinking skill. Make fun of social tides that are hurtful.
  5. Appreciate the characters in your life. Accept them and their peculiar habits.
  6. Reframe your own life. Rewrite the story as a comedy.  See if you enjoy it.

In any case, the humor must be genuine to be effective. It is OK to fake it when we start, but soon after the feeling must be real. Or else we will get an effect opposite to what we want to achieve.

People are serious about humor

For me, it is actually harder to treat humor honestly today than it was when I was a boy in the Soviet Union. When I was young humor was real and intimate. Today humor is a big business, with a lot of money involved. Israel is one of the world’s leading producers of humor. There were even Guinness records involve. Eight or ten thousand people laughing together in a huge stadium with a larger-than-life comedy star. There is nothing intimate in it. Not sure about the social role of such gatherings. Possibly they have more to do with mass hysteria than with presenting an honest dilemma or laughing at peculiarities we learned to love.

Soon AI will create our jokes for us. And then what? How real is AI-generated humor?

I will leave with a mysterious smile, the smile of Mona Lisa but on my face. And you are welcome to read more and form your own opinion.


Get 4 Free Sample Chapters of the Key To Study Book

Get access to advanced training, and a selection of free apps to train your reading speed and visual memory

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.