People from all cultures laugh, although we may laugh at different things, with even our ape cousins laughing. We know this because, I kid you not, there are scientists whose job it is to tickle animals to see their reactions.

Humans start laughing as early as 3 months of age, even before speaking. ‘Peekaboo’, it turns out, is a universal hit, and we know this because studying baby laughter is an actual job, too. We all laugh, whether it’s giggles, guffaws, chuckles, cackles - or a big belly laugh.

Health benefits

You can’t beat a good laugh to lift the spirits, and it’s well-known that there are a multitude of physical health benefits to laughter as it increases your oxygen intake, which is good for your heart, lungs and muscles. Laughing further releases endorphins, those feel-good chemicals our bodies produce to make us feel happy and even relieve pain or stress. Laughter can even boost our immune system response through the release of stress and illness-reducing neuropeptides.

The phrase ‘laughter is the best medicine’ is derived from a Bible verse, which says, ‘A merry heart does good like a doctor.’ Many other ancient texts including the Talmud and the works of Aristotle mention the benefits of laughter.

Who has the best (or worse) sense of humour?

Humour is subjective and massively dependent on culture, so people will think their country or one with a similar culture will have the best sense of humour, because it's the one they 'get'. I can’t personally speculate who has the best or worse or it will upset an awful lot of people, but some countries, and people for that matter, favour ‘slapstick’ humour, others prefer deadpan, satire, wordplay, self-depreciating – or even insults – and they can all be funny to some.

We’re also 30 times more likely to laugh in a group, and it’s contagious! Young children between the ages of 2.5 and 4 were found to be eight times more likely to laugh at a cartoon when they watched it with one or more other children.

Even in Mediaeval times, people had a sense of humour. What did they find funny? In 1470, the first ever printed joke book by Poggio Bracciolini was all about sex, money and religion. One of his tamer jokes goes like this: The Abbot of Septimo, a very fat and corpulent man, on his way to Florence one evening, enquired of a peasant he met, ‘Do you think I shall be able to enter the gate?’ Of course, he meant whether he was likely to reach the city before the closing of the gates, but the peasant, noticing his stoutness, replied, ‘Sure you will; a cartload of hay gets through, why shouldn’t you?’ (seems a bit of a ‘schoolboy’ joke to me!).

Court Jesters

Court jesters were employed worldwide to lift the mood at courts with entertainment, tricks, acrobatics, storytelling, songs and telling jokes. They could be ugly or malformed, maybe a serf-servant or a street performer, and wore colourful costumes, including the famous three-pointed ‘Fool’s Hat’. Some jesters even had considerable influence over their King, but there was a dangerous side to the role of court jester, as there was always the chance the King could be offended by a joke. James VI of Scotland reportedly fired a jester for insulting too many influential people. Having to deliver messages - whether good or bad - in their performances also came with risks, and jesters often faced the fury of the King after delivering bad news.

Jesters in most European courts were granted a ‘Freedom from all Constraint’, which meant that although almost everyone who insulted royals at the time was liable to be killed, jesters were basically given a license to insult. As long as they were funny, they were allowed to mock all the nobles and sometimes even the king himself.

Is there any form of humour that is appreciated by all, without offending the sentiments of anyone? Well, I leave it to you – the jury is still out on whether there is any humour style that is totally inoffensive to everyone, so pick carefully!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan