LivingTanganyika's 1962 Laughter Epidemic Was No Joke

Tanganyika's 1962 Laughter Epidemic Was No Joke

If we think of an epidemic of laughter, we may think that it may be something funny, but it is far from being something so simple.

Laughter is not just a happy noise; It can be a sign of distress, spurred on by anger or sadness, or intertwined with mania. The most famous example of a laughing epidemic occurred in Tanzania (then Tanganyika) in 1962, but the funny thing is that this type of psychological behavior occurs weekly around the world, particularly among populations experiencing chronic stress.

The 1962 outbreak started in a girls’ school and then spread to other communities, with uncontrollable laughter affecting perhaps 1,000 people, lasting several months, and causing 14 schools to be temporarily closed. Most cases of massive psychogenic illness start with just one person; in this case, a schoolgirl probably suffered an anxiety-induced giggle, causing a chain effect, until the girls around her were also engulfed in desperate laughter.


Little by little, it spread beyond the school and the region and into other populations at risk . The patients’ symptoms included recurrent bouts of laughing and crying that lasted from a few hours to 16 days. These attacks were accompanied by restlessness, a desire to run aimlessly, occasional violence, but there was no evidence of organic causes.


It is a case of massive psychogenic or sociogenic illness, a disease that has the ability to strike in a variety of high-stress scenarios. Stressors among female students may have included the unfamiliar expectations imposed on British-run schools and the uncertainties created by Tanganyika’s independence, achieved just a month before the incident.

Therefore, the Tanganyika incident should not be used as evidence that laughter is contagious. Psychogenic illness has all kinds of nervous symptoms and laughter is just one of them. Although the Tanganyika case is closed, similar cases of massive psychogenic illness occur among groups of people who cannot get out of a stressful situation.

In this type of situation, the affected person in question has no power over stress and cannot obtain any other response.


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