Laughter is the best medicine, they say. Endless studies have shown that laughing is good for our health, but why do we do it? Why do we laugh at all?

There are several scientific theories which try to explain why we laugh, and why we find some things so funny. It seems that there is a reason behind why we laugh at sneezing panda videos, painful fail compilations, and very taboo stand-up comedy. No one single theory can explain the full extent of our sense of humor, but all together we can start to build a picture.

So, Why Do We Laugh?

Superiority Theory

This theory is the oldest, and possibly the most cynical of the bunch. It even appears in the earliest versions of the bible. Promoted by legendary philosophers, the superiority theory suggests that we just love to feel more fortunate than others. Plato and Aristotle both agreed that we find seeing others fail absolutely hilarious.

Science suggests that humor is derived from situations where we get to see that we’re better off than others. Obviously, this reaction is subconscious in most of us. We don’t laugh because we genuinely enjoy the suffering of others – or at least most of us don’t – we just can’t help it.

This theory explains why we laugh at programs like “Funniest Home Videos” and why we can’t resist a peek when a video of someone falling appears on our Facebook feed.

Scientists believe that the sudden realization that we are superior to the people we see is why we laugh at the misfortune of others, even when we don’t really “enjoy” their suffering. We can feel bad for the pain a person might feel when they fall while still finding the circumstances hilarious because it didn’t happen to us. In this situation, we’re above them in a superiority chain.

Relief Theory

This scientific theory is based on the idea that laughing is a physiological way to relieve tension. Mentioned first in 1709, scientists have long thought of laughter as a kind of pressure release value.

When we laugh, they say, we let out a build-up of nervous energy and mental stress we’ve accumulated since our last laugh. This theory fits the closest with our knowledge of how laughter promotes the release of our “feel good” chemicals and endorphins, making us feel happier and calmer.

Relief theory also answers the question “why do we laugh when we’re uncomfortable?”. If laughter allows us to release the negativity we’ve been carrying, then we may subconsciously deploy it to calm ourselves down. Similarly, it may explain why we laugh so hard when we’re tickled. Our body is responding to the fear and tension and trying to calm us down by laughing out loud.

The Relief Theory can be used to undermine the superiority theory too. Some scientists, particularly Sigmund Freud, uses it to explain why we laugh at the pain or suffering of others.

When we see a funny video of someone falling, we become tense, fearing for their safety. When it’s revealed that they’re okay, we laugh to release that tension. The same can be applied to taboo jokes on controversial topics, such as race or gender.

Incongruity Theory

This theory on humor tries to explain why people laugh at and find certain strange things funny. The incongruity theory is the most dominant modern explanation we have. It was founded in the 18th century and was even supported by impressive minds like Immanuel Kant.

According to this theory, we just find it hilarious when things go completely against our expectations. This applies most commonly to stand-up comedians and one-liner jokers. These both induce fits of laughter by simply building up a story then ending it in a completely incongruous (unexpected) way.

This theory can also be applied to the “silly” things we laugh at. We love innocent nonsensical humor, like animals doing unexpected but hilarious things. This kind of humor is harmless and doesn’t involve superiorities or a build-up of tension, it’s just pure joy created by our expectations not being met.

“It’s sad that a family can be torn apart by something as simple as wild dogs.”

– Jack Handey

Benign-Violations Theory

This final theory tries to bring all the theories together into one. It is based on the idea that all humor requires three important things:

  1. It must violate some kind of normal expectation. This could be a social norm, a moral norm, or a physical norm. Whatever expectation is violated, it needs to be a wrongdoing.
  2. A safe context in which this violation occurs.
  3. Both of these things happen alongside each other. We need to know that although something bad was done, no one was harmed long-term. The violation was benign.

The violation also has to be appropriate to the audience. For example, if the violation occurs in church, religious people may not find it funny. If the violation involves being rude in front of children, parents may not laugh.

Ultimately, humor is subjective. Psychologists have yet to come up with a single theory that can explain all our bizarre jokes and the strange videos we see online and laugh at for hours. What we do know is that we love to laugh and that it’s great for our health. So, laugh as often as possible and don’t think too much about why such strange things are so funny!



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