Couples Who Laugh Together,
Last Together From
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So much of our attitude about life and our
capacity to meet lifes challenges depends on the quality of the
relationships we have, especially our most intimate relationships.
When they go sour, life tends to feel
bleak. Because the quality of our relationships has a powerful effect on
physical and mental balance, as well as our sense of satisfaction in life, it's
important that we keep our relationships rewarding and fresh. The data on
divorce provides compelling evidence that we are not succeeding at all. Nearly
half of all marriages end in divorce -- cohabitation couplings are far likelier
to end badly -- and of the marriages that endure, many are less than happy.
Most people know the value of a good
relationship and no matter how often they have lost at love, they keep on
hoping. As a result, advice on how to make relationships work fills shelves and
shelves of bookstores and hours of talk-show time. Some of it is even good, the
product of careful research on happy and unhappy couples.
But of all the elements that contribute to
the warm atmosphere of a good relationship, there is one that seldom gets
translated into advice or even therapy, yet it is something that everyone
desires and most people would like more of: laughter.
It's a safe bet that most of the laughs
married couples get come from TV laugh tracks, not from each other. They don't
emanate from the relationship. More important, they don't feed it. And if the
jokes that make the rounds by email are any gauge, often they are at the
expense of it.
But homegrown laughter may be what ailing
couples need most. Uniquely human laughter is, first and foremost, a social
signal. It disappears when there is no audience, which may be as small as one
other person, and it binds people together. It synchronizes the brains of
speaker and listener so that they are emotionally attuned.
These are the conclusions of Robert
Provine, Ph.D., a neuroscientist who found that laughter is far too fragile to
dissect in the laboratory. Instead, he observed thousands of incidents of
laughter spontaneously occurring in everyday life, and wittily reports the
results in Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (Penguin Books).
Laughter establishes -- or restores -- a
positive emotional climate and a sense of connection between two people, who
literally take pleasure in the company of each other. For if there's one thing
Dr. Provine found it's that speakers laugh even more than their listeners. Of
course levity can defuse anger and anxiety, and in so doing it can pave the
path to intimacy.
Most of what makes people laugh is not
knee-slapper stuff but conversational comments.
"Laughter is not primarily about humor,"
says Dr. Provine, "but about social relationships."
Among some of his surprising findings:
- The much vaunted health benefits
of laughter are probably coincidental, a consequence of it's much more
important primary goal: bringing people together. In fact, the health benefits
of laughter may result from the social support it stimulates.
- Laughter plays a big role in
mating. Men like women who laugh heartily in their presence.
- Both sexes laugh a lot, but females
laugh more -- 126% more than their male counterparts. Men are more
- The laughter of the female is the
critical index of a healthy relationship.
- Laughter in relationships declines
dramatically as people age.
- Like yawning, laughter is
contagious; the laughter of others is irresistible.
One of the best ways to stimulate laughter
-- and it's probably the most ancient way -- is by tickling. Tickling is
inherently social; we can't tickle ourselves. We tickle to get a response. Or
to entice the ticklee to turn around and become the tickler.
Not only do most people like tickling --
ticklers as well as ticklees -- most recognize it as a way to show affection.
What's more, adolescents and adults prefer to be tickled by someone of the
Tickling is probably at the root of all
play and it is inherently reciprocal, a give-and-take proposition. In other
words, it exactly represents the basic rhythm of all healthy relationships, not
to mention it triggers sexual excitation in adults.
But tickling declines dramatically in
middle age. People begin a gradual "tactile disengagement," reports Dr.
Provine. Tickle, touch, and play, so critically intertwined, all go into
retreat, although these behaviors are at the root of our emotional being.
So the next time you have an argument with
your mate, don't walk out of the room and slam the door. Try tickling your
partner instead. The most ticklish areas, in descending order, are the
underarms, waist, ribs, feet, knees, throat, neck, palms.
It won't make problems go away. But it can
set the stage for tackling them together.
Hara Estroff Marano is Editor-At-Large of
Psychology Today magazine and Editor-In-Chief of Psychology Today's
Blues Buster, a newsletter about depression. An award-winning writer on
human behavior, Haras articles have appeared in publications including the
New York Times, Smithsonian, Family Circle and The
Ladies Home Journal. She lives in New York City.