Why We Laugh

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I remember horsing around once with my younger brothers in one of our bedrooms one Saturday morning when we were children. At one point, one of my brothers jumped off his bed, and as he flew up in the air, I flung a pillow at his feet.

“Ow!” he yelled when he landed, and gripped his foot.  He started writhing on the floor in obvious pain. And, strangely, I started to laugh.

I remember thinking to myself that what had happened wasn’t funny at all—I was, in fact, extremely concerned, both that he might be badly hurt and that I had been the cause—but I still couldn’t stop laughing. Since then, my nervous laughter has recurred whenever someone has hurt themselves in front of me (falling on ice, down the stairs, off a ladder), my reaction as stereotypical as it’s been puzzling and embarrassing, leading me recently to wonder why it happens at all.


Interestingly, this same nervous laughter has been noted to occur in many psychological experiments when subjects have found themselves placed under a high degree of emotional stress specifically involving perceived harm to others. Perhaps the most famous of these experiments were those conducted by Stanley Milgram, who set out to discover why some people will blindly follow authority (the impetus being a desire to understand the behavior of soldiers in Nazi Germany). He brought in test subjects and asked them to deliver a series of increasingly powerful electric shocks to an unseen person (the “learner”) to see just how much voltage they would deliver before refusing to continue. An astounding 65% delivered the experiment’s final jolt of 450 volts, fully believing they were actually shocking the “learners.” (It turns out, they weren’t. The “learners” were members of Milgram’s team playing a role.) In the paper he published on his experiment, Milgram made mention of several subjects who began to laugh nervously once they heard screams of pain coming from the unseen “learners,” and suggested this was a phenomenon that deserved further study.

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran theorizes in his excellent book A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness that laughter evolved as a signal both to ourselves and others that what may appear dangerous or threatening actually isn’t. As he writes, perhaps “…the rhythmic staccato sound of laughter evolved to inform our kin who share our genes: don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm.” If true, this provides a plausible explanation for nervous laughter. We’re signaling ourselves that whatever horrible thing we’ve just encountered isn’t really as horrible as it appears, something we often desperately want to believe.

This may explain why some psychologists classify humor as one of the “mature” defense mechanisms we invoke to guard ourselves against overwhelming anxiety (as compared to the “psychotic,” “immature,” and “neurotic” defense mechanisms). Being able to laugh at traumatic events in our own lives doesn’t cause us to ignore them, but instead seems to prepare us to endure them.

Being able to joke about a traumatic loss usually requires the healing distance of time, however. Losing a limb, for example, may make us suicidal when it first occurs, but with the passage of time we adapt to the loss and eventually may even find ourselves able to joke about it. What magic does the passage of time work on us that permits us to laugh at what once made us cry? Perhaps definitive proof that the alarm our loss raised when it first occurred was, in fact, “false.” After all, we survived it and became happy again.

Being able to face an old trauma with humor may very well then be considered a reliable signal of psychological recovery. Perhaps also, by extension, being able to laugh at a trauma at the moment it occurs, or soon after, signals both to ourselves and others that we believe in our ability to endure it (which is perhaps what makes laughter such a universally pleasurable experience: it makes us feel that everything will be all right).


In light of the above, perhaps laughter could be most properly considered as a weapon against suffering and despair. If we can joke about a disappointing or traumatic event, we’ll often find ourselves feeling that what’s happened to us isn’t so bad and that we’ll be able to get through it. This expectation serves two vitally important functions: 1) it diminishes or even eliminates the moment-by-moment suffering we might otherwise experience as a result of a traumatic loss, which, 2) makes it more likely we will make it through a trauma unmarred and flourish once again

A key question about laughter remains, however: does it create the expectation that we’ll be all right, or does it become possible only because we’ve found our way to a belief that things aren’t as bad as they seem?

I’d suggest the answer is both, that laughing simultaneously creates and requires such expectations. We may be able to summon a belief in our resilience through other means besides laughter, but laughter also remains a means by which we can manifest resilience.

When faced with adversity, some people exhibit a great ability for turning to laughter as a soothing balm, while others remain less able to do so. While this may be a result of differences in upbringing or genetics, I often wonder if it’s equally as much a matter of intent. Perhaps many of us simply don’t think to try to laugh, either because we’re too overwhelmed by suffering or because we think laughter in the face of suffering is inappropriate.

I’m suggesting here that it’s not. That in fact laughter is a powerful means by which we can encourage ourselves. That when confronted with setbacks, adversity, trauma, or terrible news, even if it may seem socially inappropriate, we should reach toward humor. We should try to find a way to make light of whatever circumstances make us afraid. Because if instead of focusing on the negative impact of an adverse event or experience we focus on simply laughing about it, actively and consciously pursuing a perspective that makes it funny, we just may be able to activate the most under recognized but powerful weapon we have against suffering.

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  • Interestingly argued; but doesn’t convince me. I think you are confounding two kinds of laughter. The laughter in the opening paragraph is (to me) inappropriate, as you say, “nervous” laughter. It (again to me) is a sign of embarrassment; it is not intentional, it happens as an inappropriate, somehow shamed, or at least embarrassed response. (Perhaps an abasement?)

    The other laughters you describe are to greater or lesser extent intentional: to laugh off or at something is not a nervous involuntary response, but a willed response. Those “researchers” who administered shocks were not lessening anyone’s suffering, not even their own. They were guilty, shamed, “nervous,” and the involuntary, inappropriate laughter reflects this.

    This is an important subject, because laughter responses—true amusement, wry, fatalistic, perhaps “black” humor—can be strong weapons against despair, as you suggest. (Think of Irish and Jewish humor as examples par excellence.) But I think a closer look is needful to be more precise about which laughter is a sign of shame and uncomfortability, and which is a sign of strength.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Susan Eller, Alex Lickerman. Alex Lickerman said: Ever wonder what purpose laughter serves? Here's one possible explanation: https://bit.ly/eb9cAi […]

  • I like laughter. One of my favorite anecdotes is of Dr. Leakey of African fame who apparently has lost both legs at about the knee but he finds it quite convenient as he travels a lot or flies and as you know when you fly in the cattle section there is not much leg room. He just takes his prosthesis off and is quite comfortable. It is his joke, not mine.

  • Turn lemons into lemonade.

    Laughter and the ability to make light of a disappointment, a wrong, or simply a negative event, is a powerful and important lesson I try to teach my children for it is not helpful to wallow in self-pity, in disgust, or in planning retribution…but rather to absorb our experiences, and as I imagine the image of a smiling chuckling Buddha, enjoy the experience of emotion with a knowing smile and maybe even a wry chuckle…

    I can tell you it relieves the soul of weight…

  • Wow. Complex and difficult topic, Alex. I tend to find laughter in the face of adversity disturbing. I can accept it if I see its role in helping someone endure hard times, but even then I’m more comfortable with a more direct engagement with the particulars of what makes the times hard.

    For me, laughter in the face of grim or tragic events (would you laugh, for instance, at the funeral of a child who died from battering?) signals both a lack of respect AND a focus on one’s own emotional comfort at the expense of other people’s comfort. Casual observation suggests that laughter at one’s OWN misfortune may, as you suggest, function as a weapon against suffering and despair. But laughter in the face of someone else’s pain registers, for me, as a marker for a lack of empathy—perfectly normal in a child, but kind of horrifying in an adult.

    I do wonder if laughing at one’s own misfortune shouldn’t be a last, rather than a first, step in the process of recovery, however. If your first response is to laugh, your personal discomfort might be eased, but you risk papering over your obligation to understand the sources or reasons for the pain. Of course, people are different, but I know some who use laughter as a coping device that never leads to greater understanding of personal—or social—ills nor to greater empathy.

    rdp: All good points. Perhaps you might find yourself more comfortable if I substituted “humor” for “laughter,” which, as you point out, might more easily be used inappropriately. In all instances, however, I was thinking about humor/laughter as a way to manage anxiety and pain from traumatic events as one barreled on ahead in dealing with them constructively, not as a way to minimize someone else’s pain.


  • Very interesting and enlightening article! Raises all sorts of great questions and underscores the complexity of the human laugh response.

    I came across this article because my 2008 book is titled WHY WE LAUGH: A NEW UNDERSTANDING. It proposes a new theory to explain human laughter and answers most every question raised by laughter researchers and theorists over the last 50 years or so. As an “outsider” (wildlife biologist), I was able to bring a fresh perspective to the subject, but getting attention for my theory has been very difficult. People in the field have a lot vested in the status quo.

    I’m happy to send a free PDF of the book to anyone interested.

    Thanks again for sharing your important insights! Laughter is truly one of the most fascinating of all human behaviors.

  • I’m afraid that I find laughter in the presence of tragedy, or harm, hurt of any kind to be inappropriate….while I understand that sometimes children laugh when they see someone slip and fall, it is because they are not yet able, because they are developmentally not able, to fully put themselves in someone else’s shoes. As adults, we should have learned to do that.

    By the way, the studies you mention also reached the conclusion that compassion must be taught, i.e., learned, and that takes practice. Practice remembering what pain is like, mindfulness in moments of pain/discomfort so that we are able to recall in the future, how unpleasant suffering is, and practice to then learn to show support and empathy towards others, esp. if we are actual witnesses to an incident where pain is being experienced.

    I would agree however that listening to and reading about horrors all over the world, where in most instances we are helpless to relieve others’ suffering, is quite pointless. Perhaps the best that can be done with that knowledge is to use it in a conversation at a dinner party, or something. But to be in touch with all the pain in the world is not such a fruitful exercise. Better to focus on what we have at hand, and to help those we truly can.

    And as Buddhists, we want to be aware of the seeds we plant in our minds. Seeing ourselves laugh at others’ discomfort is not such a good seed to plant. Rather we want to see ourselves reacting with empathy and then see ourselves react by offering help.

    Humor has its place, no doubt about it, but not at other people’s expense. Humor, like other defenses, can be used destructively. Let’s be careful not to do that in our world, if we want it to become a better world.

  • “Comedy is tragedy plus time.”
    —Woody Allen, “Crimes and Misdemeanors”

    I agree, however, that this does not extend to laughter at the expense of other’s feelings. The implication, I think, is that we cannot always take ourselves or our “tragedies” too seriously. Time always allows for reflection and healing. Perhaps we could heal more quickly in some instances if we allow humor, or a lighter heart, to play a more prominent role.

  • Am trying to understand a type of laughter that does not seem to have been addressed by any sites that I can find. Laughter, at what would seem to be an inappropriate time followed by a compliment—for example, “You are so sweet,” “You are so you,” “You are so lovely.” While said with affection, is this a type of put-down, i.e., you are silly and hence ridicule, i.e., in effect meaning the opposite of what is said? Perhaps I do not know know the search terms, but I cannot find references to this anywhere.

  • MK, I had some thoughts and Alex suggested I respond to your question.

    In my book, I defined laughter as a “vocal affirmation of mutual vulnerability.” Thus your laughter can be useful if your friend, for example, falls without seriously hurting himself (i.e., not a “deficiency”); when you yourself fall; when someone who thinks he’s better than you falls; and when you do something extraordinary (this one is hard to explain, but trust me…it’s not relevant here anyway). So whenever a disparity in vulnerability (be it physical, emotional, cognitive, or social) is highlighted in some way, laughter can be used to bring everyone’s status back into balance. These examples, where the same message is tendered but with four different motivations, I refer to as Lifting Laughter, Self-Lifting Laughter, Lowering Laughter, and Self-Lowering Laughter, respectively.

    I can’t be sure what you mean by “an inappropriate time,” but laughter followed by a sincere compliment is most likely of the sort I describe as “Self-Lifting Laughter.” So-called nervous laughter is another example. The person complimenting is going out on a bit of a limb, about to advertise his or her feelings and not knowing how the compliment (and perhaps their affection) will be received. This heightened sense of social vulnerability can inspire Self-Lifting Laughter. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, you might feel I’m being forward—and, as you can see, I’m feeling vulnerable right now—but I think you’re wonderful.” Reminding the person they’re praising of their “mutual vulnerability” would hopefully mitigate a potentially negative response.

    Another contributor might be the “inappropriate” part of the equation, whatever that is. Again, this could also inspire a sense of vulnerability which might them to laugh (Self-Lifting if they were inappropriate, Lifting if you were) in its own right. It is another way of soliciting from others nearby (maybe with Lifting Laughter of their own) a sign of sympathy and understanding or, if perturbed, some (hopefully mild) form of condemnation. Either way, the reply would be of interest to the one laughing. The compliment afterword might just be a way of distracting from their or your social faux pas.

    If you find yourself asking a lot of questions about laughter, I can send you a PDF of my book, Why We Laugh: A New Understanding. Three hundred pages of nothing BUT answers to questions about laughter and humor, but you can search it for keywords or phrases.


  • Thank you very much for this. It does help my understanding of a personal situation I found very confusing. I stated inappropriate as, for me, the topic of conversation was important to/serious for me. The laughter seemed genuine and hearty, almost to say you are foolish, or take life too seriously. When I questioned why the laughter, the responses were variously “You are lovely,” “You are so sweet,” “You are just you!” with a pinch on the cheek. Perhaps I take life too seriously, but I could not understand this reaction at all—be it positive or negative, and so thought I need to understand laughter a little better as it should be fun for all!!!

  • Thank you for this article. But it does not explain fully what I was searching for. I have a 7 year old son that laughs every time his baby brother is crying or hurt. The baby just had a circumcision and he is crying in pain and my 7 year old is laughing at him. But if his 5 year old sister is hurt he does not laugh. I am so confused and concerned with his behavior. I understand that children don’t fully understand, but my son understands if he didn’t he would cry when his sister was hurt as well. Does anyone know why he does this, or have any further material for me to read? Thank you!

  • Shannon,

    I’ve been checking in periodically to see if someone answers your question. I’m sorry to have waited this long to respond, but I’ve been trying to get my own Blog site up and running. It’s designed as a place for people like yourself who have difficult questions regarding laughter and humor. If you go to http://www.understandinglaughter.com and submit your question on the Questions/Comments page, I’ll reply within a couple days. I’m confident I can help you view your situation more clearly.