A new study in the June issue of Emotion found a connection between people with the short version of gene 5-HTTLPR and a more significant sense of humor. The study looked at 336 adults, showing them humorous comics and film clips, and rating the participants intensities of smiles or laughter. Those with the shorter alleles had more intense reactions of laughter or smiles and rated the comics or film clips as funnier than those with the longer alleles of the same gene. In past research, the 5-HTTLPR gene has been linked to regulating serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is thought to be related to mood fluctuations.
This study adds to the body of literature building a map of the human genome and more specifically understanding the impact of genes on emotions. A shorter allele of the 5-HTTLPR gene has also previously been linked to negative emotions. So how can this gene be connected to both humor and negative emotions? Researchers explain that it seems those with the shorter alleles have more intense emotional reactions to various situations; the funny feels funnier and the negative also feels more intense. Study investigators go on to compare the short allele of this gene to an amplifier; those with it have intensified emotional reactions that those with the long alleles (Haase et al., 2015). With research connected emotional regulation to genes, can human beings still take control of their emotions? Exploring the adaptive functions of humor, as well as negative emotions, can shed more light on the agency people have in embracing day to day events.
Humor As An Adaptive Gene
The act of play has been observed across multiple species of animals; however, the use of humor is an evolved function that is unique to human beings. As human beings developed language over the course of time, and language was combined with play, humor became a part of being human. Over the course of human evolution and the establishment of civilized society, humor continued to evolve as a part of the established culture within a society. Different cultures of people developed different norms for what was humorous and what was inappropriate. Humor grew to be a way for people to connect and bond within their cultures. Additionally, humor as an evolutionary process, has been shown to be a very adaptive trait. Humor allows for human beings to find relief amidst stressful situations. When stress levels are too high, physical, mental, and emotional conditions can arise. However, humor allows for people to reduce those stress levels as an adaptive mechanism for managing difficult situations (Gervais & Wilson, 2005).
In recognizing the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of laughter, many therapists utilize laugh therapy in their practices. Laugh therapy is essentially what is sounds like; therapists help facilitate the process of laughing either in individual or group sessions. Through funny acts, images, or film clips, a person is prompted to begin laughing and as those around them join in, the laughter is amplified. The contagious nature of laughter makes for group laugh therapy sessions to be very effective for those who have more trouble finding humor in certain prompts. When a person overhears genuine laughter from another person, it can be difficult to avoid one’s own laughter. Research has demonstrated a faster decline in the stress hormone cortisol for study participants who engaged in laughter when compared to controls who were not laughing (Berk et al., 1989). Overall, laugh therapy has demonstrated the significant impact laughter can have on regulating stress and improving day to day well being.
Can’t Have One Without The Other
However, Haase et al. study not only discussed the 5-HTTPLR gene’s role in humor, but that those with the short alleles seem to experience more intensified humor along with more extreme bouts of negative emotions. So is the humor gene still adaptive, if people who experience amplified humor also experience deeper negative emotions? In considering the nature of relativity, people cannot experience such humor without also experiencing such negative emotions. So then who is better off? Those with the shorter alleles of this gene who experience more extreme emotions, or those with longer genes who experience a more subtle impact of these emotions? Ultimately, individuals still have control over their ability to utilize the adaptive functions that humor can provide for stress relief. While, some people may be more genetically prone to experience more intensified humor, that does not discount the evolution of humor to be an important function to the human specifies. Even those with the longer alleles can still take part in practicing their laughter and working to be more open minded to expressions of humor. In therapy, the focus becomes on finding strategies so that a person does not remain in one state for too long. Too much humor can take away from productivity and the ability to perform our daily functions. However, too much emphasis on completing daily tasks can increase our stress response, which can lead to the onset of illness.
Berk, L. S., Tan, S. A., Fry, W. F., Napier, B. J., Lee, J. W., Hubbard, R. W., ... & Eby, W. C. (1989). Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter. The American journal of the medical sciences, 298(6), 390-396.
Gervais, M., & Wilson, D. S. (2005). The evolution and functions of laughter and humor: A synthetic approach. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 80(4), 395-430.
Haase, C. M., Beermann, U., Saslow, L. R., Shiota, M. N., Saturn, S. R., Lwi, S. J., ... & Levenson, R. W. (2015). Short Alleles, Bigger Smiles? The Effect of 5-HTTLPR on Positive Emotional Expressions.
Laughter Therapy. (2008). The Guardian: Health & Wellbeing. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/jul/06/healthandwellbeing4#top