Here are some thoughts on laughter from a freshman-year assignment:
To accurately discuss the topic of laughter, I must first acknowledge that laughter is an act based on a human emotion, a human characteristic. This being said I must also acknowledge that laughter has no definite explanation, no definite reason, and no definite cause. It is one of those tricky aspects of human nature that enable us to be lost in awe, lost in contemplation, of a seemingly simplistic human trait. Laughter is second nature to me. It occurs several times every day, my mouth opens and out comes this strange sound that expresses my happiness and my amusement. But when I think about the emotion I experience when laughing, it becomes very foreign to all other emotions. I cannot think of an opposite emotion to that of laughter. Happy has sad, anger has love, fear has trust, shame has pride, and laughter has nothing. It is unique; it is the lone member of its category. This is the reason it is so enjoyable to discuss and try to break down. There are many theories that do this, but none that truly come to the essence of laughter. I will attempt to give my best understanding of laughter, and will provide my own theory.
Laughter can be caused in many ways, either by the pure physical feedback of nerves while being tickled, or because you are responding to something humorous. When in the process of being tickled, usually the victim only wants relief from this feeling. The feeling of total agony takes over, and the victim’s instincts kick in, causing the arms and legs to flail about and try desperately to escape the tickler, by any means necessary. When thinking of this particular feeling, I realized that when you find something particularly humorous, and are overcome with a fit of laughter, that experience can also turn from enjoyable to terrifying in a matter of seconds, where all you want is to alleviate the laughter. So what is laughter, is it a good feeling, or a torturous one? I will make the bold statement to say that the majority of people would immediately associate laughter with a good feeling, but is this judgment premature? The act of laughter contracts your abdomen and takes your breath away. I could easily imagine a hell where I sit in a cold room and am overcome with uncontrollable laughter for hours on end until the pain in my stomach causes my body to shut down. Perhaps laughter is not such a good natured emotion after all. This changes many things, such as the purpose for tickling. Is the tickler a fun parent who enjoys seeing their child smile and laugh, or is the tickler a parent who enjoys asserting power over their child and knowing that they have complete control? Perhaps this explains why I enjoyed wrestling with my older sister just as much as I enjoyed tickling her, because she was helpless and I held all of the power. Now that the face of laughter has changed, the reasons why we laugh change too. This is more closely related to Bergson’s theory of why we laugh which states that we laugh to punish. This has a negative tone as well, but the laughter is still bearable in his theory, and not something unpleasant. So what exactly is that unpleasantness telling me about why we laugh?
The first theory that I developed on my own was very simple and broad. The theory is that we laugh when unexpected things happen, and when those unexpected things do not affect the laugher in a personal or intense way. Now this applies to every situation that I could fathom, except for the pure physical response to being tickled. I will now insert my new thoughts into my old theory and ask the question, how does the unpleasantness of laughing affect why we laugh at unexpected things? This I can answer by saying several things. First, humans do not like unexpected things. The unexpected means fear, because we are unprepared for what is happening. We plan, and we prepare so that we may succeed when trying a task. We plan in big ways such as going to college, but we also plan in small ways such as planning how to respond to a question. We plan how we are supposed to think in a certain situation, or how we are supposed to act. When the unexpected occurs, and catches our mind off guard, the body punishes itself. It contracts the abdomen and rids us of our breath so that we feel that extreme discomfort. After this happening time and time again, things lose their humor, like a joke that is told more than once. Our mind is expecting the answer, and there is no need to laugh because we have prepared for the outcome. But how does this theory make sense when we smile and are filled with good feelings while we laugh?
A friend is walking next to me and steps directly on a banana peel; my friend loses his footing, slips and falls on his behind. I was not expecting this outcome while walking with my friend, so my body proceeds to punish itself with the unbearable laughter. Now I am smiling, and talking to my friend with a warm feeling about the incident. How can this make sense when my laughter is such a negative occurrence? I feel happy after the incident because my body has learned how to adapt to this unexpected incident. I have now seen the banana peel and where it lies, and my mind will make a special note to not step there. I cannot make the same mistake twice, and that is what makes me so happy. I feel relieved and alleviated of worry because I have adapted myself to be prepared for that certain outcome. I am initially punished for my lack of preparedness, but am then rewarded for having gained that knowledge. Something is particularly funny, when it is greatly unexpected. That is why we laugh the hardest at those things, so that we can be punished enough to learn the lesson. And that is why those things make us feel so good, because we are so happy to be prepared for the next time, when we will not be so caught off guard.
My original theory stated that laughter occurs only when it does not personally affect the laugher. This makes sense, but let me revise it to better fit my improved theory. We do not laugh when a loved one unexpectedly dies, because the situation is so morbid that depression is a better form of punishment. Tears and sadness will affect the victim of the loss more appropriately, because laughter can only last so long. The punishment must be fitting to the mistake that I have made. When I laugh, the situations are more or less insignificant, and only call for a short period of laughter which punishes me in the right dose. Laughter would not make sense when someone dies, because I am unable to prepare for that outcome ever again. My body cannot learn from that experience and expect the same person to die again, it can only happen once. So these are the characteristics that define my new theory of laughter.
To define my theory of laughter: laughter is a form of punishment when a person is the victim of the unexpected, so that the victim can learn from that punishment and be prepared for the next time the situation appears. I believe this theory applies to all situations, and fits all of the criteria to humor and why humans may laugh. The discussion of laughter is always changing, and the emotion associated with laughter is hard to define. My theory comes as close as it can to the essence of laughter, which is truly a mixture of good and bad, just like all other things.