Why do we laugh at serious things

By M.Farouk Radwan, MSc.

Why we smile and laugh

Why do we sometimes laugh when something serious happens?
Why would a person laugh at a funeral?

Clearly sometimes we lose it and laugh when it is not appropriate to laugh. This behaviour can be very confusing to the one's who do it since deep inside they know they don't have any bad intentions. After all the people who laugh during a funeral for example don't actually mean it and they feel ashamed for doing it.

The first thing you need to understand about laughing and smiling is that they are methods of communication and not just a way to express happiness. People smile and laugh for various reasons and many of those reasons have nothing to do with happiness. See also Is smiling a sign of interest.

Let's take the famous example of laughing inside a crowded elevator. People don't laugh inside elevators because they are happy but they do it because they are embarrassed. Many people might feel embarrassed when they find themselves standing close to total strangers inside elevators.

This situation can create a lot of tension and discomfort to many people and as a result they might laugh to release some of the tension. In other words smiling happened here in order to help the person feel better.

Why do we laugh at serious things

Let's take another famous example which is the example of laughing when a friend falls. Do you remember the last time your friend who was swinging with the chair fell on their back?

The reason you laughed at that situation is that you felt many different emotions in the same time.
Now let's analyze the many complex emotions that happened the moment your friend fell:

  • 1) You felt comfortable: The moment you realized your friend was not hurt you felt good for them and so you got emotionally charged. See also why laughter improves the mood
  • 2) You felt safe: The reason you felt safe when your friend fell is that you realized that you didn't fall. In other words you felt good about yourself
  • 3) You felt embarrassed: The moment your friend fell you imagined how would it feel like to be in their place. If you have a high level of empathy then probably you will feel embarrassed as well in such a situation. See How to make people laugh

Now let's stop here for a moment. All of those different emotions in addition to many others can motivate you to smile and even laugh out loud. The reason those emotions turned into laughter is that they all happened together in one single moment.

Laughing at funerals

The reason we laugh at certain situations , especially serious ones, is that we get charged with certain emotions that we find ourselves unable to release.

A funeral is a good example of a situation where any emotions that we develop can hardly be expressed. If you felt uncomfortable and embarrassed during a funeral then probably you will have to suppress your emotions.

If you saw a friend failing to suppress their emotions your mirror neurons might force you to do the same and as a result you might laugh.

Of course the combination of emotions could differ from one situation to another but in the end the cause will be the same. You are laughing because you are trying to handle the many emotions you suddenly experienced in a situation where you can hardly release those emotions.

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