I loved this article in the Times Online by A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. You can get to the original article by clicking here.
When other animals draw back their lips to show their teeth it means they are about to attack. Hyenas and the Pacific laughing gull naturally produce ha-ha noises but it is humans alone who experience comic relief, for whom bared teeth and convulsive gasps express pleasure.
Of course there can be a dark side to laughter. There is an ocean of difference between laughing at and laughing with. There can be cruel and mocking laughter, humiliating and nasty laughter. And you would expect philosophy’s gloomiest exponent, Nietzsche, to have a wet sponge to throw at the subject: only humans laugh, he said, because only they suffer enough to need laughter as an antidote. He is, alas, right.
But generally to think of laughter is to think of jollity and delight. It keeps us sane in the face of the world’s absurdities. Laughter punctures pomposity and often constitutes a more effective counter to one’s opponents than all the massed tropes of logic. The comedian-pianist Victor Borge once said that laughter is the shortest distance between two people. It is even said that no woman can love a man who does not make her laugh.
But laughter is about more than jokes. People can laugh for no other reason than that they are happy. They can laugh at unlucky turns; they can laugh with delight at unexpectedly meeting a friend. That all these things prompt laughter is a happy fact about human beings, given how much cause they have to weep too.