Why Do We Find Things Funny? The Science Behind Laughter

Laughter is an incredible human phenomenon, and it is something that we all experience at one time or another. It is a universal human response that transcends cultures, age groups, and genders. However, have you ever wondered why things are funny? What makes us laugh and why we find some things funny and others not so much? In this article, we take a closer look at the science behind laughter.

What is laughter?

Laughter is a complex physiological response that involves various muscles and parts of the brain. It is usually the result of something that is humorous, entertaining or surprising. When we laugh, our bodies produce a series of reactions that typically involve vocal sounds, and facial and bodily movements.

The Origins of Laughter

The origins of laughter are still somewhat of a mystery. Researchers believe that laughter might have evolved to provide social benefits to groups of humans. Laughter has often been described as contagious and as something that is capable of bringing people together.

However, it is worth noting that laughter is not inherently social. People often laugh when they are alone. Some researchers suggest that laughter evolved as a form of tension relief or a way to signal safety or no harm. Laughing can often indicate that the situation or environment is benign, free from danger or it may be used to signal that fear or aggression response may be inappropriate.

The Science of Laughter

Physiological Response

Laughter is a complex physiological response that involves various muscles and parts of the brain. When we laugh, our respiratory system becomes involved, and we start to take in more air. This increase in oxygen triggers an array of reactions in our bodies, causing a series of things to happen:

  • Our chest expands, and our breathing becomes deeper;
  • Our pulse and blood pressure increase;
  • Our muscles can contract and relax. The muscles in our face and diaphragm may contract or relax, depending on the type of laughter we produce;
  • Our brains start to produce endorphins, which are chemicals that make us feel good and which can reduce pain and stress.

Therefore, when we laugh, many of our body’s systems are activated. It is a bit like a mini workout for our bodies.

The Types of Laughter

Laughter is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. In fact, researchers have identified different types of laughter, each of which has specific characteristics:

  • Social laughterrefers to the type of laughter that is produced when we are in social situations with others. It is often used to signal friendliness and approval.
  • Mirthful laughteris the type of laughter that is produced when we are amused or find something funny. It is often the result of hearing or observing something that we find humorous or entertaining.
  • Nervous laughteris laughter that is produced when we are in uncomfortable or awkward situations. It is often used to ease tension or signal that everything is okay.
  • Sardonic laughteris a type of laughter that is produced when we are trying to disguise our true feelings. It is often sarcastic or cynical in nature.

Each type of laughter is unique, and the reasons for its production can vary significantly.

Why do we find things funny?

Theories on Humor

There are many theories on humor, and researchers are still studying this topic today. Some of the most popular theories include:

  • The Superiority Theory: According to this theory, humor is a way of feeling superior to others. It suggests that we find things funny when they make us feel better about ourselves or when they reveal a flaw or mistake in other people.
  • The Incongruity Theory: This theory suggests that humor is produced when there is a discrepancy between what we expect to happen and what actually happens. In other words, we find things funny when there is a twist or surprise in a situation.
  • The Relief Theory: According to this theory, humor is a way of relieving tension or anxiety. It suggests that we find things funny when they release emotional tension or allow us to acknowledge taboo or controversial topics in a safe environment.

The Role of Context

The context in which we experience something can also play a significant role in whether or not we find it humorous. For example, something that is funny in one situation may not be in another. This can include cultural and social factors, past experiences, and even our mood at the time.

Why is humor important?

Humor plays an essential role in our lives. It is a way of relaxing and enjoying ourselves, and it can have various social and emotional benefits. Some of the benefits that humor provides include:

  • Reducing stress and anxiety;
  • Promoting social interaction and bonding;
  • Improving our mood and overall wellbeing;
  • Providing a coping mechanism in difficult situations;
  • Encouraging creativity and brainstorming.

The Future of Humor Research

The study of humor is still relatively new, and researchers are continuing to explore the science behind laughter. They are looking at everything from the neurological and physiological responses to humor, to the role of culture, social norms, and gender. As with anything related to the human experience, there is still much to learn about humor and laughter, but one thing is certain – it is something that we will always find essential in our lives.

Common Questions and Answers

  • Q: Can laughter be harmful?
  • A: While laughter can be a positive and beneficial experience, there are instances where it can be harmful, such as laughing at someone’s expense or using laughter to hide true feelings.
  • Q: Is there a difference between a fake laugh and a genuine laugh?
  • A: Yes, there is a difference. A fake laugh is often shorter in duration, and the pitch is usually higher. A genuine laugh usually lasts longer and is deeper in pitch.
  • Q: Can you develop a sense of humor?
  • A: Yes, it is possible to develop a sense of humor. One way is to expose yourself to more humor, such as watching comedies or reading funny books. Another way is to spend time around people who have a good sense of humor, as humor can be contagious.
  • Q: Can humor evolve over time?
  • A: Yes, humor can evolve over time. What was once considered funny may not be humorous today, and vice versa. This can be because of societal changes, cultural differences or simply changing tastes.


1. Peter McGraw & Joel Warner, The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, 2014.

2. Provine, R. R. (1992). Contagious laughter: Laughter is a sufficient stimulus for laughs and smiles. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 30(1), 1-4.

3. Scott Weems, Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, 2014.

4. Michael Lewis and Jeannette Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions, Third Edition, 2008.

5. Szabo, A., & Hopkinson, K. L. (2007). Negative, positive, and personal humor: Their relationship to depression and anxiety. The Journal of Psychology, 141(1), 33-41.

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