My partner laughs in his sleep. I find it delightful, but that’s at least partly because he laughs a great deal more he’s awake.

In the Love and Laughter episode of Sick of It, Karl Pilkington’s character wakes up his flatmate when he laughs at night, but he worries about this as he doesn’t seem to laugh at all when he’s awake.

He finds a photo of himself smiling on holiday and recalls that he enjoyed that holiday: he reminds himself that he disliked the holiday but his ex-girlfriend made him smile for the photo.

He watches an old video tape of Vic and Bob that used to make him laugh: something’s wrong, as he doesn’t even crack a smile. He reminds himself that when he watched this before, it made him laugh but he wasn’t watching on his own: he was watching it with his ex.

There is a lot of truth here. Laughter is a completely social phenomenon: we are 30 times more likely to laugh if there is someone else with us then if we are on our own, and we will laugh more if we know people and if we like them.

We can catch laughter in a contagious way – laughing just because others are laughing – and we are much more likely to catch a laugh from someone we know than someone we don’t. And research has even shown that in romantic relationships, couples who deal with stressful situations with positive emotions like laughter get over the stress, but are also happier in their relationships and stay together for longer.

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It’s not because the laughter is a bit of magic dust that makes everything seem happier, as the laughter is only beneficial if everyone laughs.

So Karl laughed more to Vic and Bob because he was not watching it alone. Likewise, on Karl’s holiday, his partner making him smile likely did make him enjoy it more, assuming she was smiling too.

Karl’s elderly flatmate/aunt points out that love and laughter are all that matter in life, and that he doesn’t have either. But love and laughter are not even all that separable to start with.

Many years ago, my father was direly ill and we were told that he was dying. As we all sat around in the hospital, a bit stunned, my dad suddenly said “we’ve laughed a lot, haven’t we”.

Not long after that, the doctors tried something that saved his life, and many years later when he did die, I was thinking about what he said: at the time I was a bit baffled but now I work on laughter, I think he was right. A life filled with laughter is a life filled with joy that is shared, and with the relationships where laughter can grow and flourish.

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We should pay attention to our laughter, we should value it. And Karl starts to realise this when an offhand comment by a comedian – who of course is not making him laugh – makes him remember that he laughs when he sleeps because of the person he dreams of. Maybe she could make him laugh when he’s awake?

  • Love & Laughter (episode 4) of Karl Pilkington’s Sick of It is on tonight ( 17 Jan 2020) at 22:30pm on Sky One.


Sophie Scott
Sophie ScottProfessor of Cognitive Neuroscience

Sophie is a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL, studying the neural basis of vocal communication. She hosted the 2017 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture and is one half of the popular science podcast The Neuromantics.