The sadness was palpable. My uncle lay in his coffin, pale and strangely lifelike. Suddenly, from the front of the room where his closest family sat, I heard a muffled giggle. I looked over to see my oldest aunt, red in the face and clearly trying to suppress laughter. Her sisters watched, mortified, but it wasn’t long before they joined in — and then the people around them, too, as seismic waves of laughter spread through the room.
“I felt his spirit,” my aunt later explained. “He wanted to lighten the pain we were feeling.” (My uncle was known for his sense of humor.)
Laughter is a great emotional equalizer. We’re often told it’s the best medicine. Deeply stressful or emotional episodes overload our emotional engine and send the needle into overdrive. To release stress, we often respond through inappropriate laughter. It’s not ideal, but it is effective. On top of reducing the stress hormone cortisol and improving short-term memory, laughter has even been found to ameliorate physical pain.
Responding with laughter in deeply sad circumstances, for otherwise healthy people, is called an inappropriate affect — meaning, an emotional response to a stimulus that is either incongruous, or not quite as acute as it should be. For instance, think of times when you’ve watched someone getting hurt in real life or on TV and found yourself laughing uncontrollably even though you’re concerned, even scared, for the person affected. Generally speaking, studies say that this is a way for our subconscious to assuage our fears and convince us that everything is actually okay. Sometimes we laugh because we’re having trouble accepting what we see — we’re in shock. So we distance ourselves from the fear or pain of the circumstance by laughing it off.
In the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in which he found another reason why people may laugh at those in pain. The subject in the experiment was instructed to deliver shocks to an unassuming person (who was, unbeknownst to the subject, in on the experiment — the shocks weren’t real). When the person responded by screaming, Milgram noted that many subjects laughed nervously. Nervous laughter is not genuine; rather, it happens out of fear, discomfort or stress. Fascinatingly, a study found that only 10 to 20% of laughter is a genuine response to a shared joke.
What’s the other 80%? Laughter, as neuroscientist Robert Provine points out, is, “primarily a social vocalization that binds people together. It is … an instinctive behavior programmed by our genes.” How many times have you responded with “lol” or “haha” to something that’s not even remotely funny? Laughter can be a placeholder, a social binder, a gallop over a moment of awkwardness and a defense mechanism.
I’ve often heard it said that comedy is tragedy plus time. Laughing through something that’s traumatic and painful is a way of convincing yourself (and therefore others) that you’re alright, or at least on your way to being alright. It brings needed levity to an otherwise heavy situation — as if to say: false alarm! Of course it’s not always effective, especially when it enables us to ignore something that’s otherwise important or pressing, but we’re so afraid of being openly sad these days that the charade often seems necessary.
The next time you laugh, think about what brought it on. Was it genuine, or were you sending someone a social message? Did you actually find it funny, or were you laughing away the awkward?
Helena Bala is a writer, former lawyer and the genius behind Craigslist Confessional. Follow her on Twitter @Clistconfession. Collages by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.