Why Do We Laugh?

Exploring HumorThe Big Question

Why do we laugh?

As defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary, to laugh is to show emotion (as in mirth, joy, or scorn), to find amusement or pleasure in something, or to produce the sound or appearance of laughter.

This basic definition of laughter will serve as a point of reference as I try to delve deeper into the causes of laughter. In addition, I want to add a distinction to this definition: There are two distinct forms of laughter, the social laugh, and the humorous laugh. The humorous laugh is fairly simple; it is a laugh triggered by something perceived as truly funny. However, the social laugh is most often triggered by a particular social interaction or the need to conform to social norms.

Laughter, a trait unique to humans and our primate cousins (or at least as we know it), is a phenomenon which has been discussed and studied for centuries. However, modern science and medicine have yet to pinpoint one definite cause for it. Not being a trained scientist or doctor, I can’t shed any light on the clinical causes of laughter, nor can I offer any data or statistics to back up my ideas. I am merely a teenager making observations in hopes of helping create a more nuanced picture of laughter. So, why do we laugh?

Laughing plays an integral role in normal human social interactions. It lends an immediate sense of freedom and carelessness to the moment. If you can laugh in a given situation, it is implicit that you can find the joy or happiness in that moment. It also suggests that you are unburdened with negative emotions. Because happiness is a generally pleasurable state of affairs, it’s logical that laughing, the projection of an image in which happiness abounds, would have some sort of social clout. Because of that, laughing has yet another positive connotation. It conveys a sense of ease with the world around us. As a result of the positive associations we have with laughter, we are sometimes expected to laugh.

With the sense of expectation around laughter comes the obligation of laughing. If everyone in a particular setting is laughing, how can we help but laugh, even if it’s only an attempt to blend in, or not being singled out. This is how laughing can become an obligation, not a display of mirth, or comfort, or ease. Although laughter is socially expected it manifests differently in people. By looking at these deviations in laughter, insight can be gained into the nature of society and the way individuals can fit into the larger fabric of the community. This raises the question: If laughing doesn’t come from inside, but is externally forced, does it become meaningless? What is laughing other than conforming to social norms when it’s forced? If laughing doesn’t lose its meaning entirely in these situations, then certainly it gains a new one. In fact, laughter is often an easily identifiable symbol for idle chatter.

While social laughs can be caused by plenty of things, laughing isn’t all about social interactions. Most basically, laughter is about humor. So why do we find things funny? What actually tickles our funny bone? My answer is, it depends. Your sense of humor is like a fingerprint, it’s unique to you. It depends on your personality and the experiences you’ve had in your life. That being said, it seems that people in general like things that they can relate to, things that make fun of the sheer absurdity of their everyday lives. Something that comes to mind when I think of real life humor, is the genius of Charlie Chaplin. In one of his silent films, The Immigrant, Chaplin portrays an immigrant on his way to America. With actions that are still utterly hilarious today for their downright silliness, Chaplin pokes fun at the immigrant experience. 1917, when the film was first released, was the end of a huge wave of immigration to the United States, which created a receptive audience for immigration related humor. Not surprisingly, the film was an enormous success. Overall, it does seem that hilarity most often ensues when we’re presented with familiar situations.

Although socially laughing can sometimes be awkward and oppressive, when your emotion is genuine, whether amused or happy, laughing is one of the best feelings. When you truly laugh, it fills you up for that moment, and forms connections and memories. Because moments of total laughter are so all consuming, laughter is in no danger of dying out. I know that when I really laugh, the laughter almost becomes a time marker, highlighting in my mind that moment, however short, of true bliss.

Ultimately, laughter is not only about humor (although when I told my mother about this assignment, she giggled a little), it is critical to the way we humans interact with each other. In society, often simply sticking to the normal rules of social interactions demands laughter. Sometimes, laughter can be caused by nerves, which can described as an attempt to pass fear off as something relaxed and happy. So why do we laugh? There is no one way to laugh, and no one reason for laughing. In its simplest form, laughter conveys “mirth, joy, or scorn,” but we all know it’s a little more complicated than that.

Naomi Chasek-MacFoy is a 9th grader currently attending Bard High School Early College. She enjoys reading, playing soccer and sewing. Naomi lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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