Why You Sometimes Laugh When You Shoudn't

Have you ever laughed in the middle of a funeral? Science claims that inappropriate laughter can be either due to a normal (and cathartic) reaction or to a neurological problem.
Why You Sometimes Laugh When You Shoudn't
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Laughing out loud during a funeral or when there’s a minute’s silence. Laughing non-stop when a friend suffers a spectacular fall or when you receive bad news. If this has ever happened to you, you’ve surely wondered why. As a matter of fact, the answer’s extremely interesting.

Science doesn’t claim to know everything about the mechanism of laughter. In fact, you tend to take for granted this social gesture that allows you to connect with others. It’s also the channel that helps you express your positive emotions, like happiness, joy, surprise, or excitement.

However, you should know that sometimes, laughing is also key for releasing certain psychophysical states of great tension and anxiety. In fact, the brain resorts to laughing as a resource for emotional catharsis. Indeed, as neuroscientists say, laughter is one of the most important yet also unknown behaviors of human beings.

“Man alone suffers so excruciatingly in the world that he was compelled to invent laughter.”

-Friedrich W. Nietzsche-

girl representing when we laugh at inappropriate times

Reasons why you laugh when you shouldn’t

When you laugh when you shouldn’t you’re aware of your strange behavior. In other words, you know that your emotional reaction isn’t the ideal one for the situation in question. Nevertheless, it still happens. In fact, in most cases, it even feels reassuring. It relaxes you for a few moments. However, afterward, you feel rather confused.

You might ask yourself if it’s some kind of temporary madness. Is there something wrong with you? In reality, unexpected and inappropriate laughter doesn’t respond to any particular disorder. In fact, it’s generally a psychological response to anxiety and tension. What your brain does is promote the reaction of laughter in order to alleviate all your uncomfortable feelings.

Therefore, suddenly laughing at a funeral or when you receive some bad news is nothing more than a mechanism of catharsis. Thanks to this reaction, you reduce the negative valence tension within you.

Interestingly, science often claims that the evolutionary origins of laughter were more related to a survival mechanism than to the mere expression of enjoyment or delight. You laugh to connect socially with others and also to override any negative valence emotions.

When laughter doesn’t promote bonding, what’s it for?

University College London conducted research that claims that laughter is a social emotion and that it appears more frequently during social interactions. It favors bonding, connection, affection, and emotional regulation. This is pretty easy to understand.

However, what happens when you sometimes laugh at inappropriate times or when you’re on your own? In fact, the research suggests that laughing doesn’t have the sole purpose of promoting human connection or bonding. What’s more, sometimes you don’t even laugh about anything specific, you laugh to relieve your discomfort, stress, or contained anxiety.

This has happened to all of us at some time. For example, after having a bad day, one of those in which everything possible that can go wrong, does, you finally get home only to find a broken fridge or washing machine. However, instead of reacting with exhaustion or even greater frustration, you end up laughing out loud…

Sometimes you may be talking about something extremely distressing and adverse, yet your mind and body responds with laughter. This is a normal mechanism generated by contained anxiety. Its aim is to alleviate your feelings of discomfort.

The dark side of laughter at inappropriate times

Laughter isn’t only present in humans. It also occurs in other species such as the great apes. In fact, something we share in common with chimpanzees or gorillas is that our laughter is spontaneous and linked to certain situations. However, the fact that, as humans, ours might arise spontaneously, inappropriately, and when we’re alone is unique.

We’ve already mentioned that most of the time this behavior is the result of stress. However, it also has a pathological side. Aga Khan University (Pakistan) and Columbia University (USA) conducted research that stated that inappropriate laughter can be the origin of various neurological disorders. For example:

  • Gelastic epilepsy. This is the disorder suffered by the character of the Joker.
  • Demyelinating diseases. For example, multiple sclerosis, neuromyelitis optica, or acute disseminated encephalomyelitis.
  • Diseases of bulbar and pseudobulbar palsy.
redhead girl representing when we laugh at inappropriate times

Laughter has the power to override other emotions

We all laugh at inappropriate times. It’s something that happens to us all. Indeed, laughter is an essential biological, social, and psychological mechanism for us, as humans. It helps us to connect with each other and to express emotions of positive valence.

However, it also has another purpose. This is to cancel or regulate certain complex emotions. That’s because anxiety, anguish, sadness, frustration, anger, stress, or simple thought overload can sometimes lead to inappropriate and involuntary laughter. With laughter, you relieve your internal tension.

Thanks to laughter, two things happen. Firstly, you experience a kind of catharsis. In other words, it eases your emotional distress. Secondly, you become aware that there are a series of situations you must deal with. In fact, that’s the whole key, managing your concerns or what it is that’s causing you pain.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Aragón O, Clark M, Dyer R, Bargh J. Dimorphous expressions of positive emotion: displays of both care and aggression in response to cute stimuli. Psychol Sci. 2015;26(3):259-273. doi:10.1177/0956797614561044
  • Hiba ArifJay P. MohrMitchell S.V. (2005) Stimulus-induced pathologic laughter due to basilar artery dissection.Elkind
  • Scott, S. K., Lavan, N., Chen, S., & McGettigan, C. (2014). The social life of laughter. Trends in cognitive sciences18(12), 618–620. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2014.09.002
  • Simmons Z, Ahmed A. Pseudobulbar affect: prevalence and management. Ther Clin Risk Manag. 2013:483. doi:10.2147/tcrm.s53906

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.