Laughter is not just a response to humorous events. It can be a way to cope with anxiety and stress or even a sign of a mental health issue, among still other explanations. In fact, as it turns out, the psychology behind why we laugh is rather complex….
The Effects of Laughter
The first thought about laughing is that people do it when something is amusing—laughter cuts across class, ethnicity, race, and social status. When a group of people gather and something happens to trigger laughter, the result can be transformative. For a few moments, strangers become friends, the timid become social butterflies, and the stoic get excited.
Research also suggests laughter has benefits. Laughing releases endorphins, natural substances the nervous system produces to help people deal with pain and stress. Some describe laughter as “sunshine for the soul and “the best medicine.” Laughter can be contagious. Seeing a baby with a big smile, followed by innocent giggling is enough to make many people respond in kind.
Anyone who has enjoyed what’s called a good belly laugh knows that laughing can make individuals forget disappointment and pain. Seeing a baby or toddler with a charming smile followed by innocent giggling is enough to make many people respond in kind. However, laughter has many triggers and can also arise from more bizarre circumstances or origins.
Why Do We Laugh?
Children engage in laughter as they run and play. Laughter can happen spontaneously, with individuals breaking out into laughter seemingly without a trigger. Laughter can also be a defense mechanism to hide true feelings and control emotions. Exploring laughter helps us understand the complexity and motives behind an act that might otherwise seem innocent and natural.
Nervous or Uncomfortable Laughter
During the 1960s, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram and colleagues conducted a study instructing participants to administer electric shocks to strangers. The shocks would increase in power up to 450 volts. Unknown to the participants, the strangers in the study were also researchers who were not being shocked. However, some participants who thought they were applying higher voltage shocks laughed when the “strangers” pretended to scream. The researchers concluded it was nervous laughter.
An individual observing one person bullying another may disagree with the act but may laugh as a means of controlling their anxiety. The tendency to laugh it off may lessen the stress and discomfort of the situation. A person may also feel compelled to laugh because others are laughing. However, after thinking about it later, individuals who laughed at the bullied person may feel distressed due to guilt or anxiety.
Fear may prompt nervous laughter. Laughing from fear can serve as a defense mechanism that reduces anxiety, making the situation seem less threatening.
Laughing After Getting Hurt
It may seem strange that an individual would walk into a door or trip over an object, experience pain, and then laugh about the incident. To laugh while in pain seems weird. However, considering the psychological and physiological effects of laughter, it makes sense. Laughing at oneself can be a way of controlling an embarrassing situation when it seems that everyone who observed the incident is laughing. It takes power away from others who may be laughing to poke fun. The endorphins released when laughing can relieve the physical and emotional pain that the hurt individual is experiencing.
Laughing After Others Get Hurt
When they see a person fall, some people howl with uncontrollable laughter. Experts say that it’s because of incongruity or something that happens unexpectedly. For example, if an individual walks down the street and trips on a crack in the sidewalk while texting, someone witnessing the fall might burst into laughter. It may appear harmless to laugh at this unexpected event since the one texting should have been paying attention to where they were going. On the contrary, seeing an individual fall from a construction scaffold would not provoke the same response in most people. The seriousness of such an incident typically elicits concern and empathy, with a desire to get help for the individual and prevent further injury.
In a situation where a person is perceived to be a villain or shows little regard for others, laughing when the villain gets hurt is not due to vicious motives. The laughing is a nod to the individual finally getting what’s coming to them.
Laughing When Mad
When some people get angry, rather than lash out at the object of the anger, they laugh. It makes sense that people laugh when angry because laughter has a way of making people feel better. If someone makes a hurtful comment, laughing at the situation may feel powerful because it deflates the person hurling the insult. The victim becomes the victor. Using humor to confront people who use hurtful words to intimidate and belittle is a paradoxical response that can leave them confused and powerless.
Laughing for No Reason
An individual may begin laughing uncontrollably for no apparent reason, disturbing those around them. This type of laughter may be due to Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA), which describes laughter outbursts unrelated to an individual’s emotional state. Pseudobulbar affect is related to a neurological condition that results in a person showing emotions in inappropriate or exaggerated ways, such as hysterical laughter or crying. Pseudobulbar affect can be confused with depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. The condition is treatable with antidepressants and other therapies.
Laughing As a Sign of a Disorder
Like Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA), other disorders can sometimes manifest as inappropriate laughter. Paradoxical laughter occurs for no reason and is related to an individual’s mental state or mental illness. A person experiencing unstable moods, schizophrenia, or other mental illness may display paradoxical laughter.
Hyperthyroidism, where the thyroid makes too much of a thyroid hormone, can cause nervous laughter. Grave’s disease, an autoimmune disorder affecting thyroid hormone production, causes nervous system problems and leads to nervous laughter when nothing is funny. Kuru is a disease where a protein known as a prion can infect the brain, keep it from functioning correctly, and impact emotions, leading to nervous laughter.
Laughter Can Be Fun Until It Isn’t
Laughter can be fun and healing. It is also contagious, and just like music, it is a universal language. However, when laughter appears to come from a dark place, people begin to worry.
If you have reason to believe that laughter for unknown reasons or at inappropriate times may be a sign of a mental health issue, we are here to help. Our counselors are available 24/7 to take your call. Contact us today to learn more.