Bad Humor: Why We Laugh When We Shouldn’t and Why it’s Okay (Sort of)

You know those times when you absolutely should not laugh? When the tone is somber, subdued, reverential? Think of being at a religious ceremony or the family meeting when you know you’re getting in trouble as a kid. Well, you really have no business snickering. It’s the farthest thing from normalcy, decency, and decorum. It’s sort of diabolical, even. The problem is, I do have an unfortunate history of bursting out in hysteria at just these moments.

When my sister and I were about 10 and 11 years old, we sat side-by-side in hard wooden pews in nice dark dresses and endured a long eulogy about our dear grandmother. We loved our grandma Emilita — Grammie or Gramacita, as we would call her. She was ornery and cantankerous. She was a cut-throat card player and Yahtzee fanatic who wasn’t about to lose to us little kids. She had a twinkle in her eye when she made snarky remarks, so we were pretty sure she wasn’t actually mad. We learned to appreciate her nuanced sense of humor rather than fear her scathing tongue.

Funeral attendees sat in silence and some were in tears. Every once in a while, my sister and I glanced at one another and shared a moment of sadness. Did I mention that we weren’t used to religious events or serious settings or sitting still for any length of time in girly dresses?

I think Gramacita’s spirit overtook us because at one point when my sister and I glanced at each other, we could see that the other one was trying to contain herself from turning that frown upside down into a smirk. It was just a subtle difference in facial expression, but when you and your sister are only 15 months apart in age, you just know. Soon we were both looking down at our laps and trembling. The adults next to us assumed we were crying. It didn’t take long for us to completely lose it and be forced to run out of that somber setting.

Why do We Laugh When We Shouldn’t?

Why does intense sadness or seriousness sometimes cross over into inappropriate bursts of laughter? I do think I have a strong absurdity gene. When things are preposterous or unexpected — whether in a comedic sense or in a heavy way — it’s like I get my emotional wires crossed. But it’s only around certain people, like sisters or close friends, that my nervous laughter comes out. I contain myself at work and around random strangers.

Psychologically speaking, my problem seems to be inappropriate affect or incongruous emotion. “Emotions, actions, or overall demeanor that seem out of place in a situation all fall under the general umbrella term inappropriate affect,” according to Cuncic (2020). However, I am choosing to reject this idea because it leads directly into discussions of brain injury or psychiatric disorders. Besides, I am not like this all the time. The conditions have to be just right for me to laugh like a hyena when I should be reaching for the Kleenex.

Nothing was Funny

My husband likes to tell the story of me completely losing my $hit during a very heavy movie scene in a theater while on a double date with him in college. The movie was “Gorillas in the Mist,” starring Sigourney Weaver. I loved anthropology and revered Dian Fossey and her tireless work on behalf of these endangered animals. I was fully into the movie and up in arms about the plight of these majestic creatures. Nothing. Was. Funny.

After many minutes of dreadful suspense, the camera suddenly zoomed in on the carnage that poachers left in the mountain gorilla troop. It was so silent in the theater that all you could hear were muffled sniffles. Tears were running down my face.

A woman in the audience broke the silence by standing up and yelling out, “Fu¢kers!” I immediately looked at my best friend and then collapsed to the floor, laughing hysterically. I don’t know why, but this hippie, intellectual woman in this liberal college town (who I was in all ways identical to) yelling at the screen flipped a switch and turned my deep horror into some sort of cathartic paroxysm. The idea that movie goers thought that I thought mountain gorilla poaching was a laughing matter just made it worse. I was in over my head. I was ushered out by my appropriately somber date while people gave me intense stink eye.

The Benefits of Laughter

Before you conclude that we should go back to the first explanation about me possibly having a serious mental health condition, I would like to consider a more favorable reason for my inappropriate outburst.

Ramachandran (2004) is a neuroscientist who posited the idea that nervous laughter is meant to reassure our fellow peeps that, even though the situation is tense, everything and everyone is going to be okay. He thinks that “laughter evolved to inform our kin who share our genes; don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm. Laughter is nature’s OK signal” (p. 22). He also believes that when we laugh during emotionally intense times, we are subconsciously trying to replace the painful or traumatic event with positive feelings.

I’m sure I was nervous to be on the date — I just wanted to be platonic at that time and knew he wanted us to be more than friends. And it was a terrible movie choice to inspire romantic feelings anyway, so I was probably grasping for a shred of positive energy. In retrospect, me having a bout of emotional dysregulation makes a little more sense. Plus, hasn’t everyone heard that laughter is the best medicine?

According to Cimons (2019), laughter is known to decrease cortisol, a stress hormone, and release endorphins, or happy hormones. It leads to relaxation and oxygenation, which is good for the heart and other organs. It improves the immune system and even lowers one’s chances of serious disease. Laughter is basically free medicine without side effects.

The sullen funeral goers and distraught theater audience may not have understood my uncontrollably mirth, but maybe in some little way it helped reduce everyone’s dangerous cortisol levels and overwrought limbic systems. Maybe just a tad?

Gramacita and Gorillas

In tense situations, I would generally recommend trying to pull oneself together, put on a long face, and act like an actual grown up. But if that’s impossible, I suggest rebranding your behavior as altruistic and even medicinal. Tell your friends and family all about the rationale and health benefits of laughing in the face of stress. And while you’re at it, send them an invoice for improving their physical and mental wellbeing at unexpected intervals, just when they needed a pick-me-up.

Gramacita would approve and join in on the racket. Gorillas? We don’t joke about them. They. Are. Always. Off. Limits.

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Citations

Cimons, M. (2019, June 15). Laughter really is the best medicine? In many ways, that’s no joke. The Washington Post.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/laughter-really-is-the-best-medicine-in-many-ways-thats-no-joke/2019/06/14/9f159208-8955-11e9-98c1-e945ae5db8fb_story.html

Cuncic, A. (2020, April 9). Understanding Inappropriate Affect. Very Well Mind.

https://www.verywellmind.com/understanding-inappropriate-affect-4767992#:~:text=and%20related%20issues.-,Overview,umbrella%20term%20%22inappropriate%20affect.%22

Ramachandran, V. S. (2004). A brief tour of human consciousness: From impostor poodles to purple numbers. Pi Press, an imprint of Pearson Technology Group.

Me (left) and my sister trying not to laugh so our mom could take a decent picture in 1980.

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Megan Taylor Stephens

Megan Taylor Stephens

Die-hard Oregonian, mom to two teens, speech-language pathologist, lover of languages, cultures, and the human condition, and aspiring writer