What’s So Funny?

The context for laughter is everything.

When looking for a picture to accompany this essay, my daughter suggested this one where I am laughing on the last night of our trip to North Carolina in June.

I am walking from a hotel in the middle of an industrial park near the airport back to the hotel where the airline booked us a room because our flight had been canceled and we couldn’t get home. We had eaten at the sister hotel using airline vouchers. It was an unhealthy and unappetizing meal, but there were few options since I’m a vegetarian, so I ate greasy free food.

It had been a long day that included hours standing in line at the airline counter, yet here I am laughing because it was a beautiful night, my daughter was being flexible and lighthearted though she wanted to get home as much as I did, and, because unappetizing or not, I had food to eat and a place to rest my head.

The Mayo Clinic documents the benefits of laughing: it alleviates stress, improves the immune system, and boosts mood so that we can better deal with difficult situations.

Laughter can sting too, of course, as when we are the object of it.

When the main character of the young-adult novel Ghost finds himself the object of laughter at school, the seventh-grader “was literally shaking with embarrassment.”

Embarrassment merges into anger as Castle “wanted to break the desk. Or flip it over. Scream. Something. Anything.”

Castle, or Ghost as he calls himself, has endured parental abuse and a school bully who picks on him unrelentingly. While he gets in trouble for “altercations,” he has “never skipped class before. Never. I mean, I had my fair share of school problems, but I was never bold enough to just not go. And I definitely didn’t have the guts to walk out in the middle of the day. But now I didn’t have a choice. I had to get out of there.”

Ghost has choices, but the mingled feelings of embarrassment and anger make him feel powerless.

Laughter was the tipping point because laughter can remind us of our vulnerability.

Author Jason Reynolds names the track team that Ghost joins the Defenders for good reason, as Ghost interacts with the world defensively, hence the laughter proving too strong.

In his work on laughter, John Charles Simon discusses the connection between laughter, vulnerability, and status. When we unsuccessfully face a hurdle (track pun intentional), we lose status, and being laughed at reinforces our fears around that.

During the Pleistocene Era, when humans lived in dangerous and rugged terrain, social anxiety evolved to protect us as a species. Alienate the other 120–150 with whom you lived, and they might unceremoniously invite you to live elsewhere, which, given life conditions back then, meant death. Social anxiety was better than a solo death and taught our ancestors to regulate their behavior since failure to navigate social niceties could result in dying.

Ghost is not in a life or death situation when his classmates laugh, but he’s been in a life or death situation previously thanks to his father, so social anxiety feels like a legitimate threat to his life, not a mere moment of vulnerability that won’t last. That’s evolution and personal experience doing double duty to create a sense of menace for him.

Let’s laugh at truly bad food as a way to empower ourselves and rise above mere annoyances.

Let’s be mindful that laughter can make someone feel so vulnerable that he may feel he has no choices.

Laughter is powerful. Let’s use it well.



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Kathryn Duncan

Kathryn Duncan


Kathryn Duncan is an English professor and author of the book Jane Austen and the Buddha: Teachers of Enlightenment.