This week in class we’re going to be discussing emotion. The interesting thing is, when I prepared this course years ago, most of the resources I used focused on so-called negative emotions, such as fear, and anger and aggression. As we all know, Yoda felt that fear and anger were paths to the dark side of the force.

I used the term “so-called” because I don’t believe fear and anger or aggression, in and of themselves, are negative.  All our emotional responses, including fear and anger, evolved for a reason, and when you think about it, they evolved for very good reasons. Fear protects us from danger. Imagine not feeling afraid of that fire racing through the forest threatening your life, or that saber-toothed tiger bearing down on you. Anger, and perhaps aggression, are emotions of possession; we experience them when we perceive that something that we value has been taken from us. In an evolutionary framework, this is also a good thing. So much about survival and reproduction centers on resources. Access to food, access to suitable mates, both of these are vitally important things that must be protected, defended, and yes, reclaimed when lost, because they improve our reproductive success. A species that just let’s others take all their important resources is one that won’t be around very long.

So, in my opinion, Yoda was wrong about a great many things.  (And I really wanted to put that clip from “Return of the Jedi” here, but I couldn’t find it on YouTube).

It isn’t much of a stretch to understand why these emotions evolved in the first place, and the value they actually have in the grand scheme of things. But this blog series is about laughter, so lets focus on that for a bit. I’ve already talked about the social bonding function that laughter plays, which is why it’s important. We’re also not entirely sure what parts of the brain are involved in laughter, but we are beginning to image brains in such a way that we can tell if a person is generally happy or generally sad.

It seems to me that the dopaminergic system is probably a major player. Laughter is accompanied by (or produced by?) positive affect. I think it’s pretty safe to say that other people are most often the cause of our laughter. So a release of dopamine is our reward for sharing a laugh, or engaging in some kind of socially-mediated laughter, like those found in conversation. Mirror neurons, too, probably play a huge role. Most of the time, if someone smiles or laughs, you laugh along.  How many times have you laughed at something you didn’t quite hear because everyone around you laughed?  I do that all the time, and invariably someone turns to me and says “What did they say?” and I have to sit there and feel like a dork because I don’t actually know.

There’s a trend in psychology now, called positive psychology.  One of the important things it brings to the discipline is that it helps get us away from this obsession with abnormal behavior and dysfunction that has taken over psychology.  I talk often of the importance of understanding everyday behavior in class; it becomes depressing to contextualize all behavior in terms of how it goes wrong or is maladaptive, in my opinion.  I think that’s what takes us to the dark side, rather than certain emotions themselves.  People end up getting so caught up in their bad behavior that they downplay or overlook the good behavior, and that’s a shame.  With the rise of positive psychology comes an increased emphasis on understanding happiness and laughter, in figuring out how our nervous system mediates those emotions.  The potentially life-saving advantages of social bonding, which is in part mediated by happiness and laughter, are no less important than the direct benefits of fear and anger.  Social behavior evolved because it conferred an advantage to the individuals who engaged in it; anything that helps us get along in a social group, including mirroring the positive behavior and affect of others, is probably a good and beneficial thing in a broad context.  This is, after all, a major factor in how children learn what to do and how to be.

One goal I have for myself this summer is to revise my emotion lecture.  I think it’s pretty good, but I want to add a section on happiness and positive affect.  Understanding laughter in the nervous system is not only cutting edge in psychology, it has direct benefits for individuals and for my beloved discipline.  And I’m all for that.