Laughter and play are two activities that most people partake in a lot of the time. They are also two very simple concepts that are so difficult to explain. We know when we are playing that we are playing and we know when we are laughing that we are laughing. However, if forced to explain what we are doing, why and how, we might blank out. In this paper I plan to clarify the relationship between laughter and play. At first glance it seems that the task is fairly easy but as I dive into the terms I find that neither term is easy to define. The relationship between the two is much more difficult to see. However, I am determined to get to the other side of this problem and will begin by defining both laughter and play. Then I will explore the possible connections between the two and finally, hopefully, have a clear relationship between laughter and play.
We have looked at two different texts in class both having to do with laughter. One,
Laughter by Robert R. Provine, looks at laughter from a scientific point of view. Provine tries to answer questions about the evolutionary significance of laughter. Why do we laugh? How did laughter help or hurt us in the evolutionary process? And other such questions. However, Provine does seem to come to some relevant conclusions when it comes to trying to define laughter in the context of play. First of all, Provine comes to the conclusion that Laughter is (a) a social activity, (b) a biological reaction to some kind of stimulus (either physical or psychological) and (c) is random, spontaneous and rarely under much personal control.
The second book is
Taking Laughter Seriously by John Morreall. Morreall looks at laughter in a more philosophical way and looks at the different ways and situations in which we laugh. He also asks the question “why do we laugh,” but he does so in a way that explores not the evolutionary and biological significance, but the reasons that cause us to laugh. Morreall comes to the conclusion that “laughter results from a pleasant psychological shift.” He then explains that laughter is neither the psychological shift, nor the feeling the shift produces but an expression of that feeling.
Using the two conclusions we can see that laughter might be the spontaneous, biological reaction to (or expression of) an emotion of pleasure caused by a pleasant psychological shift. The word reaction and the word expression do not seem to be very much related but I think that a spontaneous reaction might be the expression of an un-rationalized feeling. For example, if a monster pops up and grabs me while yelling “BOO!” my reaction (either a scream, running away, or a violent punch/kick at the thing) is an expression of a feeling I’m not fully aware of yet (in this case it might be fear).
Play is a bit harder to define than laughter only because the texts that we have looked at in class spend so much time on the subject of laughter, and almost no time on play. However Morreall does define play to a certain level. He describes play as “an activity carried out for its own pleasure,” and as mimic, pretend and moving around words (for example taking “Daddy is…” and inserting “…a dog” or “…a boogeyman” instead of “…a man.”). The only mentions of play in Provine’s book are of playing rough-and-tumble games or the social factor of playing with other people (or chimps playing with other chimps).
I want to use the first part of Morreall’s definition of play (play as an activity done for its own pleasure) for the purposes of this paper and simply add to it that play can either be an activity or a state of mind. Play as a state of mind is a playful attitude, in which case it means to be disposed to either play, not take things at their full seriousness and to not be otherwise in a bad mood. It is important in order to clarify the relationship between laughter and play, that we understand what a playful mood is.
Play as an Attitude
Play as an attitude is the predisposition to pleasurable feelings. Usually if you are in a bad mood, it is really hard to find the humor in things, to laugh, to be nice, or to even think positive things. A playful mood or attitude is the complete opposite of a bad mood. In a conversation in class on Tuesday, October 23 Job, one of the students, explained how he had seen the movie
Anger Management (one of Adam Sandler’s films) and had not found it funny. Some time later he watched the move again, this time in a playful mood, and found the movie hilarious. This is exactly how a playful attitude is important for laughter and for understanding the relationship between laughter and play.
Laughter and Play
Now down to the point of the paper. What is the relationship between laughter and play? If to play is to do something for the enjoyment of the thing you are doing, and laughter is a spontaneous, biological reaction to (or expression of) an emotion of pleasure caused by a pleasant psychological shift, how are the two connected? Well, the first obvious connection can be found when we think of the playful attitude.
When we play, we can say that we are in a playful mood. Both play and a playful mood are pleasurable things. Laugher is a reaction to, or expression of, pleasure. So, we can say that Laughter and play are connected by pleasure. It is not necessary that play be around for laughter to happen, however, it does help to be in a playful mood. It is not necessary either that laughter show its face when playing, however, playing does, by nature, cause a playful mood. Therefore, a playful mood also connects laughter and play.
When you consider the fact that laughter may be a very strong social phenomenon, then you might also consider that other people are a strong connection between laughter and play. We usually play with other people, and only on rare occasions do we play by ourselves. The purpose of this paper though is to clarify the connection between laughter and play and not just name off a few common denominators.
It must be, then, that the connection between laughter and play is pleasure. When we play, we put ourselves in a playful mood, we predispose ourselves to the feeling of pleasure. Once we are in this predisposition, it is easy for us to experience pleasant psychological shifts and therefore laugh. In layman terms we might say that playing is fun and that laughing is how we express that we are having fun. To clarify the laughter/play relationship then, we might say that playing is pleasant and laughter is the expression of pleasure.
 Provine, Robert R.;
 Morreall, John;
Taking Laughter Seriously (pg. 39)
 Morreall (pg.39)
 Morreall (pg. 89-90)