Nervous Laughter & 12 Reasons Why We Laugh

Nervous Laughter & 12 Reasons Why We Laugh

Nervous Laughter & 12 Reasons Why We Laugh

In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to reveal the 12 reasons why we laugh and the significance and meaning of nervous laughter.

First a quick update:

“The One Success Strategy For The New Year”
Are you still struggling with or working on New Year’s Resolutions? In 1963, John Wooden, a coach from rural Indiana, created a legend with the UCLA basketball team, leading his teams to win 10 national championships in 12 years; record wins that are still unmatched in the world of basketball. Wooden achieved this record without ever using or saying the word winning to his players. What is his secret? 

“How To Handle Someone With Emotional Baggage”
Ariana Grande says she was sickened, hurt and angry that she was objectified by a male fan of her boyfriend Mac Miller who said to him, “Wow. Ariana is as sexy as hell. I see you man. I see you hitting that.” Why, then does Ariana Grande objectify women – and men – in her music, videos and live performances? Watch the video. 

Now, let’s talk about the 12 reasons why we laugh and the significance and meaning of nervous laughter.

Why do we laugh?
Is laughter simply a reaction to something humorous?
What about when we laugh at someone else’s misfortune?
What about when we laugh at a situation even though it isn’t funny or humorous to us or anyone else?

The sound of laughter is created by the intercostal muscles, the muscles between the ribs that bring air in and out of the lungs via the expansion and contraction of the ribcage. Laughter is found throughout the animal kingdom.

In humans, there are 2 primary types of laughter – real (involuntary) laughter and posed (forced or fake) social laughter.

Real involuntary laughter can include various forms of laughter such as laughter caused by tickling or nervous laughter, which I will explain shortly.

Aristotle believed that the human does not have a soul until the moment it laughs for the first time. A male or female baby marks the first developmental milestone of the social smile starting around 6 weeks of age (40 – 42 days) and evolving into the ‘cooing’ sound around 8 weeks of age, and eventually becomes a recognizable laughter at around 12 weeks of age (80 – 90 days.)

Posed laughter (forced or fake social laughter) is easily explained: its intention is to gain acceptance amongst friends or peers (we laugh at someone’s humor when it’s not funny so that they will like and accept us or because we want to reflect acceptance to them.)

Real laughter (involuntary laughter) is harder to definitively explain because there are so many theories; involuntary laughter must be viewed and studied in context to gain a full understanding of its meaning and intention.

Posed laughter is nasally in tone; real laughter has a higher pitch and lasts longer than fake laughter. As we get older (by late 30s) we become more skilled at distinguishing between posed and real laughter; adolescents are not as skilled at telling the difference.

“We laugh between fifteen and twenty times a day. Women tend to laugh less as they get older, but not men. And we all tend to laugh more in the afternoon and evening, though this tendency is strongest for the young.” – Scott Weems, author of “Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why”

12 reasons why we laugh
Here are various theories and explanations of the reasons why we laugh:

1. Releases tension and psychic energy (Sigmund Freud’s theory)
2. A reaction to existential loneliness (Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory)
3. Releases endorphins and creates an opiate type effect, raising the threshold of pain and aiding in social bonding (study March 2012, “Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold” )
4. Releases or reduces pain, stress and anxiety; releases or reduces social anxiety and self-shame or embarrassment in social settings
5. Signals us and others that we are okay and safe despite previously perceived threats or current minimal injuries
6. Denounces and discourages inferior, dangerous or socially unacceptable behavior (physical and/or mental) i.e. mocking or scolding someone with laughter
7. Signals our superiority – reacting to people worse off than us laughing at light forms of ugliness not involving pain or harm (Aristotle’s theory)
8. Signals our superiority and power over others i.e. bullying, shaming people and laughing at them
9. Creates social bonds by giving or seeking acceptance
10. Expresses “a vocal affirmation of mutual vulnerability” – Lifting Laughter expresses solidarity and sympathy (laughing with someone and raising them up); Lowering Laughter expresses sameness and equality (laughing at someone and lowering their arrogance, cockiness or status) – theory by John Charles Simon – book “Why We Laugh: A New Understanding”
11. Involuntary reaction to other people laughing – contagious response to real and posed laughter (becomes less contagious as we get older)
12. Schadenfreude – expressing joy from other peoples pain; laughing at other peoples pain and predicaments because it is not us or because we believe they deserve it. An extreme form is the celebration of the pain and suffering of others caused by our power over them – the diabolical or maniacal laugh – often found in fiction.

“Nervous Laughter”
Nervous laughter is a term given to a person who laughs at a situation or event which is not humorous or welcomed and the person consciously recognizes that. For example, in the 1990 documentary “Truth or Dare”, Madonna laughs when one of her crew members tells her that Madonna’s makeup artist was drugged and raped. Madonna laughs at a specific moment. She is told that Sharon “was at the club dancing; next thing she knew she woke up in her room nude; her stuff was stolen and she went to the bathroom and her butt was bleeding.” Madonna laughs at exactly the moment when she hears “her butt was bleeding.” Madonna then says, “I’m sorry I’m laughing.”

What, though, is the meaning and intention of nervous laughter?
Nervous laughter in response to someone else being harmed or experiencing pain serves one of three purposes:

1. Hide or reduce one’s own discomfort, anxiety or stress (relief of tension)
2. Signal that the incident is not so tragic and we are safe (relief over safety)
3. Reflect Schadenfreude – pleasure or self-satisfaction over someone else’s pain, embarrassment or misfortune in the knowledge that it is them and not “I” (superiority & relief over safety or superior standing.)

In the above mentioned case involving Madonna and the nervous laughter, the context of the laughter is revealed when she next says, “All I can think about is how she started talking about how she’s on tour with me, she’s staying at the Ritz Carlton, and those guys, whoever they are, got it in their mind that they were going to f*** with her.” Madonna infers that Sharon is responsible for her rape; she is too blame for the rape.

Various people report that they have laughed at funerals, and this laughter can be explained as a way to avoid feeling the real pain and as a means to release tension or anxiety. Clients have reported laughing for extended periods until finally breaking down and crying.

“We have nervous laughter because we want to make ourselves think what horrible thing we encountered isn’t really as horrible as it appears, something we want to believe.” – Neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran

Laughter is medicine?
In 1964, Norman Cousins was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and told there was 1 in 500 chances he would survive. Cousins responded by watching humorous videos and TV shows to the point that his disease went into remission, and laughter was later studied as ‘medicine’ with the ability to lower stress and boost the immune system. Anatomy of an Illness: A Patient’s Perspective.

Various studies reveal that the anticipation of “mirthful laughter” elevates the mood by releasing beta-endorphins and boosting the immune system by releasing human growth hormone (HGH which helps with optimizing immunity), and it lowers 3 key detrimental stress hormones that negatively impact the immune system – Cortisol, Epinephrine (adrenaline) and dopac, (the major catabolite of dopamine.)

Finally, “Laughing Meditation” is a form of therapy which encourages deliberate, extended periods of laughter.

If you need assistance to overcome the past and experience more joy and laughter in your life, book a one-on-one session with me. 

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I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & SRTT Therapist

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