The Tanzanian laugh epidemic

Did stress in a small African village trigger a laughter contagion?

A epidemic of the happiest kind broke out in a small African village in 1962. In this article we will try to explore the facts of what actually took place in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). There is no doubt that the event was remarkable. It is still spoken almost 60 years after it happened. The event was a ‘laugh epidemic’ that caused uncontrollable outbursts of laughter, primarily among school children throughout the village.

The Background:

In January of 1962 a young girl in a missionary boarding school in the village of Kashasha started laughing. Two other girls with her also started laughing. Children passing saw the girls laughing and although unaware of what had provoked such a joyous outburst among the girls, also started laughing. However the laughter wasn’t confined to a few girls in a single incident. The laughter continued spreading throughout the small school over the following weeks. The laughter outbursts lasted from minutes to a few hours and reoccurred up to four times (Provine: “Laughter, a scientific investigation”). There were reported cases of the laughter outbreak lasting up to sixteen days in some individuals. None of the five teachers at the school were affected (two European teachers and three African teachers). By the middle of March 1962 two thirds of the students of the missionary boarding school (95 of 159) were experiencing periodic outbursts of uncontrollable laughter.

The school ended up being temporarily closed as investigations begun. As the investigations continued it was discovered that the laughter epidemic was not confined to just one school in Kashasha. It had spread to the nearby villages of Nshamba and Bukoba. By the time the epidemic had subsided some two and a half years later later fourteen schools had been closed for extended periods of time. Today what took place in Kashasha and Nshamba is described in scientific journals as the “Tanganyika (Tanzania) Laugh Epidemic”.

Some researchers thought that the incident may have been a case of mass public hysteria brought on by the consumption of tainted or contaminated food products. The fact that the epidemic mainly appeared to affect children and not adults caused this theory to eventually be discounted. Blood samples taken at the time and sent to Europe for testing confirmed that no anomalies were found in the blood samples collected. Some say the claims of what happened in Tanganyika are wildly exaggerated and has developed into an urban legend over the years. Neuroscientist and lecturer Robert R. Provine, in his book “Laughter – A Scientific Investigation” writes that the Tanganyika Laugh Epidemic was a very real event. Provine says it was not a case of an entire village grinding to a halt because of continued laughter outbursts.

Rather the laughing epidemic affected around 200 people in the originating village by the end May of 1962. In June of 1962 it was reported that the laughter contagion had spread to another school and around 50 people were experiencing uncontrollable fits of laughter. By July two further schools had been shut down as investigations continued into the cause of the happiness hysteria. By the end of the outbreak over 1000 people afflicted by the mysterious phenomenon. Today’s research into the Tanganyika Laugh Epidemic seems to indicate that stress was possibly a leading cause of the epidemic. It seems that around the time the epidemic broke out a new government administration was put in place across Tanjanyika which had a very strict policies towards children, schooling and expected outcomes. This new, more strict approach to children and schooling caused many of the children to become stressed over what was expected of them. The eventual outburst of laughter was perhaps a coping mechanism to reduce the stress levels that were building up, primarily in the children but also in women rather than the male elders of the villages.

Today it is a proven fact that laughter reduces stress. The more we laugh the better we feel and the more easily we are able to cope with the things we have on our plate. We have all experienced at some point in our lives a mini version of the Tanganyika Laugh Epidemic where we have commenced uncontrollable laughter. Those around us become affected by our outburst of joy and also start laughing. Eventually if you are really lucky a group of people including yourself will be rolling around the floor with tears of joy streaming down their faces! Hysterical hysteria!

If you are suffering the affects of stress consider setting up a daily laughter plan to increase your laughter levels . It is guaranteed that if you laugh more you will feel better, so look for something to laugh about today! 

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