How we respond to humor

In the company of others, we are more likely to laugh out loud at humor than when alone, when we are more inclined - less loudly - to chuckle, giggle or merely smile. Why? Because the original purpose of laughter is to communicate to others that all is well with us. We are signalling that things are safe even if, in the case of humor, they are unexpectedly twisted.

Since its origins, which related to group survival, laughter has come also to signal many other things - in scorn, sarcasm and schadenfreude, for example, laughter is all about 'I'm safe and you're not'. Laughter is of course only one of the short-cut signals we use to communicate. Others include screaming and groaning to indicate and warn that all is not well with us.

Laughter, smiling, giggling and chuckling may be spontaneous or deliberate, or both at once. They may be used deliberately to socially bond or show approval or disdain. Smiling, if not seen as condescending, is universally beloved and and often returned, and indicates that one is friendly and not a threat, and/or that one does not feel threatened.

Nervous laughter or sheepish smiling are about hoping or pretending that all is well. Uncontrollable or hysterical laughter or giggling often occur in situations where humor is not expected or condoned - for example in a classroom or at a funeral - usually manifesting as giggling with desperate attempts by the giggler to stop or muffle it.

Our giggling is uncontrollable because we are giggling at our inappropriate giggling and attempts to suppress it, creating an uncontrollable giggle-cycle. This is magnified if others are doing likewise - each giggling at each other's 'naughty' giggling as well. Laughter, giggling and chuckling, like smiles, are often reciprocated and 'infectious', giving mutual communication that all is well, even if rules are being flouted.

So we laugh or giggle uncontrollably when we are caught up in a cycle of laughing or giggling at the very fact that we are laughing or giggling.

'Black humor' is very common amongst police, ambulance and medical workers, firemen, military combatants and others in dangerous or critical situations, who use it to maintain emotional equilibrium in the face of their experiences. This is simply because it relieves tension, and can also contribute to team bonding. It is also common in the lyrics of blues music and other expressions of the oppressed, for the same reasons.

Laughing at those who are different: our "reptilian" brain is automatically wary of any "otherness" which may indicate a possible but unknown threat, yet we simultaneously feel safe, particularly if in the company of like-minded "ordinary folk". So there is tension yet safety, resulting in relieved laughter. An element of scorn is often present also, designed to pressure the "outsider" to conform to the group's paradigms and norms, or else be ostracised. Again, the group's norms and bonding are reinforced by this, which imparts safety and security.

In a nutshell :

Humor always presents as being unexpected yet safe. (Being safely surprised). The surprise or shock or naughtiness produce tension (alertness to possible danger) which is resolved if it is felt to be safe; the resulting smiling, giggling and chuckling signal or communicate that all is well after all.
Humor needs two essential ingredients: it must surprise (totally predictable outcomes don't amuse), and be understandable (we need to 'get it').
Humor (is the release of tension after) results from the unexpected (resolves) resolving safely into normality
Humor results from surprise (the unexpected) resolving into safety (normality)
Humor results from surprise at the unexpected resolving into safe normality :WRONG! Visual hunour (slapstick) in particular (eg Punch & Judy shows) can arise from watching an unsuspecting victim walk into an inevitable (from the spectator's point of view) disaster! But we feel safe.
Humor-induced laughter, chuckling and smiling are signals of relief, or release of tension, at safely regaining normality after surprise
Laughing, giggling and chuckling signal to others that all is well with us
Tension primes us for "fight or flight"


In this exposition, we will ruthlessly examine /scrutinise what we find humorous, and why we externalise it into laughter, chuckling, giggling and smiling.

For thousands of years philosophers, including Plato, have puzzled over the nature of humor. Their quest to explain it was not made easier by the fact that different people find different things humorous, at different times in their lives, in different cultures, and in different historical periods.

What we find humorous depends largely on our personal experiences, education, personality and circumstances. And everyone knows that how humor is received depends largely on how and when it is delivered. For example, cracking a joke at a funeral, or a risqué joke to the in-laws, may be poorly received, as is poor joke-construction or poor timing within the joke.

It has been said that few things are less appreciated than failed attempts at humor.

This treatise finally uncovers what humor is, and why we smile, chuckle, giggle and laugh at it.

The Elements of Humor

Let's start at the very beginning - with infants. As soon as their eyes are able to focus and they begin to recognise faces, and well before they can talk, they can appreciate humor.

For example, all over the world, infants will explode into squeals of delight if we play "peek-a-boo" with them, or rather at them, by repeatedly hiding behind something - even just putting our hand in front of our face - and then suddenly reappearing with a big goofy grin. (It is important to grin, until they are old enough to find scary faces funny and not terrifying. And keeping eye contact with them is necessary to engage them.)

So what is happening there? What universal instinctive reactions cause the infant to spontaneously laugh?


  • Give a few jokes as examples.

  • People hide behind humor using it as a shield from their true serious self

  • Two common definitions of humor/comedy used by professional comedians:
    'Truth + Pain = Comedy'
    'Tragedy + Time = Comedy'
    'Pain + Time = Comedy' (Lenny Bruce (?))

  • Bergson saw comedy as a reaction to consciousness of our own mortality(?)
  • Good comedians, like good story-tellers, do not rely on exaggeration or the unusual, but make the commonplace amusing or interesting for us. They make us see the funny or interesting side of what we would otherwise see as ordinary.
  • One must be careful not to overdo attempts at humor - there must be a certain air of confidence that one's humor will succeed.
  • Distinguish between (a) situational comedy, which usually has a commonplace setting (often a family at home), where unexpected yet quite believable things happen or are said, with characters 'bouncing off each other', and (b) gag-based comedy, such as stand-up comedy, where absurd situations are described, often with one-line gags.
  • Humor is contagious or infectious, just as smiles tend to return smiles spontaneously. Why? Because if only one person is laughing and others aren't, it implies that there may be a problem. Everyone laughing together signals that all is well with all. Again, we are biologically 'wired' to do this, as it aids our survival as a social group or species, just as empathy and sympathy do.
  • As well as being unexpected, yet believable (albeit 'twisted'), humor must also be safe. For example, on a 'funniest home video' TV program, a typical funny incident may be someone confidently attempting some stunt only to 'come a cropper' and crash into something, their self-confident expression changing instantly into alarm or panic. But if, after we had had our laugh at this, we discover that the person had died or been maimed as a result, it would cease to be humorous (except to sociopaths) and we may feel guilty for our previous mirth. As long as it ends safely ('all's well that ends well') this unexpected yet believable scenario is funny. But we can also laugh at others' misfortunes (Schadenfreude) that end tragically for them as long as we feel safe.
  • Yet Schadenfreude may not be quite as simple as simply rejoicing in another's misfortune with the thought 'I'm safe and they're not'. Consider that we often hear people who have been through horrendous experiences say: 'There are others worse off than I'. This helps them by putting their own suffering into perspective and steering them away from self-pity or feeling uniquely and unjustly victimised. So, although they almost certainly wish no suffering on anyone (and those who suffer most typically least want others to suffer), they can in these respects gain positivity from the suffering of others. So Schadenfreude may serve as a biologically-driven survival mechanism.