By: Bridget Yu (Bugle Team)

Reviewed by: Emma Keoy (Bugle Team)

When we are born, nurses will first make us cry to ensure we know how to breathe. Thus, perhaps crying is important to us. Alongside this, laughter may just be as important as crying. Laughter doesn’t just help us express our feelings but also has communicative functions, such as showing understanding, expressing playful intent or can even be used to relieve stress. Here’s the question ‘WHY do we laugh?’ Is it because we want to express our positive feelings? Do we laugh simply because others are laughing?

Let us begin by identifying the occasions on which we laugh. Jokes? Unexpected events which surprise us? When we win something? Indeed, laughter in each of the above situations serves different meanings. First of all, we laugh when we hear and understand jokes. Without much consideration, we may assume that it is the joke itself that we found funny. We categorize this kind of laughter as humorous laughter. It is an overt expression and we can’t really control it (Foot & McCreaddie, 2006). However, many studies have also suggested that this may not be the case. In fact, laughter can be due to social reasons and the phenomenon is called social laughter. According to Giles and Oxford (1970), laughter can be a way of expressing our social relationship with others. For instance, laughter can serve as a means of expressing your belongingness and seeking or expressing social approval. In other words, we are more likely to laugh when the social group we belong to is laughing and therefore we ‘should’ be amused by the same joke/ incident. Thus, it is not surprising to observe more laughter when people are in a group than when they are with strangers or alone (Devereux & Ginsburg, 2001). Other than jokes, surprise due to unexpected events will also make us laugh. According to the incongruity theory, in order to successfully make a joke, we need to lead the listener to make an assumption and then by violating their expectations, we can get them feeling surprised and/ or amused. We also laugh when we win something. The superiority theory suggests that we laugh when we feel superior while comparing ourselves to the others, which explains why we laugh when we win, as we feel that we are better than the others.

Some may think that laughter is just related to positive events. Yet, researches have showed that we may also laugh when we are experiencing negative events or emotions. Partington (2006) suggested that laughter not only expresses superiority but as an attempt to create it especially during adverse situations. Ladegaard (2013) suggested that often when people are experiencing extreme adversity, they laugh and cry to reconcile themselves with their traumas. Sanders (2004) suggested that laughter may have an indirect effect on helping us to protect our personal and emotional well-being. Partington (2006) also suggested that laughter may be able to help us release our restrained mental and physical stress. It seems that after all, being able to laugh it off is a crucial life skill.

Although laughing may seem to easy and meaningless, it actually has lots of communicative functions and can even improve our mental health! Maybe a little laughter a day can also keep the doctor away. I know it’s a bad joke but just laugh it off and enjoy the rest of your day.


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Devereux, P. G., & Ginsburg, G. P. (2001). Sociality Effects on the Production of Laughter. The Journal of General Psychology, 128(2), 227–240.

Foot, H., & McCreaddie, M. (2006). Humour and laughter. In O. Hargie (Ed.), The handbook of communication skills (pp. 293-322). New York, NY: Routledge.

Giles, H., & Oxford, G. S. (1970). Towards a multidimensional theory of laughter causation and its social implications. Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 23(79), 97–105.

Ladegaard, H. J. (2013). Laughing at Adversity: Laughter as Communication in Domestic Helper Narratives. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 0261927X13489301.

Partington, A. (2006). Linguistics of laughter. A corpus-assisted study of laughter- talk. New York, NY: Routledge.