It Isn't Always Appropriate to Laugh
by Veronica Williams
Many years ago I set off on an errand of mercy. My father who had been suffering in a nursing home for some time was losing the battle and was coming to the end of his life. I was reluctant to visit but knew it was now or never, so in early January I travelled to where he was living. When I arrived I was taken to one side by the nursing staff and told my father had passed away a few hours ago. It wasn’t a startling revelation, as we had been warned that he was dying, but I was saddened that I had not arrived in time to say goodbye, and that he had slipped away. I phoned one of my siblings who was already distraught and said ‘I missed him;’ and we laughed as we consoled each other. I suppose it’s surprising that at times like this that we chose to react by laughing
It was in no way an attempt to trivialise what is a deeply tragic event, and I can only presume it’s the brains way of coping with a very stressful and a deeply sad event. Essentially it might be argued that when facing adversity some people turn to laughter as a means of lightening and coming to terms with a traumatic event. The body’s coping mechanism triggers an emotional response which allows the recipient of the shock to deal with the event. The tears would come and the grief was already an inevitability, but for now it was important to initially acknowledge my father’s passing without releasing my own pain and hurt onto others who had their own suffering to deal with.
When we laugh at situations which are by no means funny it is arguably an effective outlet for some of the stress and tension, which if not dealt with correctly could cause emotional difficulties.1 Some exponents who have studied the effects of laughter might argue that in adversity some of us laugh and so lighten the devastating effect of the trauma. I am not by any means implying that it’s a suitable way of dealing with such tragic circumstances, but as an initial coping mechanism it might be used as a strategy to deal with the pain that one is feeling. Additionally I am merely relaying a tale of how I coped with the initial shock of losing a beloved parent.
The point I am making is that we sometimes laugh when it’s inappropriate and there are a variety of reasons why we may behave in this way. Arguably the basis of laughing inappropriately has its foundations in a variety of sources. As previously identified it can be a reaction to a trauma or shock, however there are other instances when laughter which is not merriment is a person’s way of either making light of our circumstances or a way of lifting our spirits in the face of adversity. 2 Recently I read an article where the writer recalls laughing when her sibling fell and injured himself quite badly. It wasn’t raucous or infectious laughter, but as she remembers it a ‘nervous laugh’. The laughter was inappropriate and she was aware of it, but could not stop her initial reaction. One possible explanation is that the brain is receiving a message that there is an impending shock which needs to be soothed or dealt with calmly.
It seems that laughter, which is traditionally associated with humour, joy and happiness might also be a means of coping with stress. Interestingly enough proponents of laughter have argued that it releases endorphins which encourage a sense of well- being and helps you to relax. The health benefits are that a good laugh minimises anxiety and also reduces the risk of a heart attack.3
So what are you laughing about? Is it that something is funny and appealed to your sense of humour? Is it that you have reacted to something which isn’t intrinsically funny or amusing but it’s a way of coping with an embarrassing situation or is the laughter precipitated by an unusual or abnormal event. We are complex human beings and there are a multiplicity of reasons for laughing, including the most obvious you have an upbeat personality and enjoy a good laugh. I know that my sense of humour is somewhat quirky and I have a tendency to laugh in most situations.
Veronica Williams is a graduate in English Literature and has a Master’s Degree in Cultural Studies. She has taken early retirement from teaching and recently completed writing and publishing her autobiography. Veronica moved from the UK and now lives in the Caribbean where she is actively involved in writing general articles for a variety of magazines. In addition she writes educational resource materials: firstname.lastname@example.org