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How Large-Scale Events Impact Laughter and Humor

If your mood affects laughter, then your current life circumstances will too.

Key points

  • The way one interprets certain traits as representing either major or minor shortcomings can differ depending on one's current life situation.
  • Someone in a very good “place” or recovering from a bad situation often finds setbacks to be less serious and more amenable to humor.
  • One's current health status can also influence one's laugh response, increasing or decreasing its use depending on the circumstance.
Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

In my last few posts, within the broader theme of variation in the human laugh response, I discussed how the mutual vulnerability theory of laughter can explain why our sense of humor can vary because of who we are, but also and how we are. In this latter grouping, I covered the first of three topics, namely our current emotional state. Here I’ll tackle the last two—our present life situation along with how we feel physically and mentally in the moment.

Current life status

Looking down at our lives (metaphorically) from 30,000 feet, it’s not too hard to believe that our perception of vulnerability might be affected by our current social circumstances. Typically our general physical, emotional, and cognitive attributes tend to change in a slow and progressive manner. Our social circumstances, on the other hand—and our health, discussed later—can change quickly and unpredictably. When they do, their effects are wide-ranging.

Our present social status provides a context within which we first define, and then pursue, many of our short-term goals. They help to determine what some psychologists refer to as our mode—a general disposition that typically lasts several weeks or months.

Does our present social situation find us, for example, securely employed or seeking work? Are we making good money or minimum wage, overworked or underutilized, challenged or bored? Are we single, married, divorced, or widowed; are we in love, looking for love, or resigned to its absence? Are we happy about our home life or trapped in a bad situation, surrounded by good friends or lechers, raising happy kids or troubled ones, close to family members or at odds, respected or dismissed, chasing a dream or running from a nightmare? How close are we to reaching our life goals and how happy are we with our progress? Our social status affects our mode, our mode influences our mood, and our mood makes us more susceptible to some emotions and less so to others, including amusement.

Mart Production/Pexels
Mart Production/Pexels

This is not to say that the effect our current status has on our perception of vulnerability is either direct or simple to predict. A relatively low-status individual, for example, perhaps someone at the beginning of his adult life, might very well take a minor run-in with the law in good humor. He has little time and energy invested in establishing a place within society and will probably rebound from such an embarrassment with minimal disruption. A high-status individual, someone who has invested tremendously in his reputation for judgment and responsibility, could perceive the same sort of failure as devastating. Laughter, at least in the moment, would be difficult to muster.

Regardless of how our perception changes, it will inevitably be influenced by our current state as it relates to achieving our goals. Generally speaking, a rewarding job will give us a greater sense of satisfaction, stability, and confidence than a job that doesn’t reward us. Being happily married with children may provide for more time in stimulating situations, fewer opportunities for boredom, and more challenges to meet than does being alone with few prospects. Having been continually frustrated in life, by contrast, would tend to inhibit our laughter response.


Our health can affect our perception of vulnerability in two ways. Indirectly, the general condition of our bodies, much like our current social status, will influence our frame of mind. Being in poor health can profoundly impact our ability to obtain certain objectives. A physical ailment can be viewed in the same way we might perceive lack of employment, the loss of a friend, or a failed artistic endeavor. It represents a setback, whether permanent or temporary, in our attempts to succeed in life. And, like other setbacks, it can affect our tendency to settle into certain modes and moods.

Edward Jenner/Pexels
Edward Jenner/Pexels

Here again, as with our life status, there is not necessarily a consistent or direct relationship between the status of people’s health and the resulting effects. For some, poor health can result in a bias towards sadness, frustration and insecurity. They may see themselves and their circumstances as moving from vulnerability to deficiency, and therefore may be less in the mood for laughter. For others, poor health may provide a stimulus for reflection, appreciation, and humility. They may change from being indifferent to vulnerability to being more sensitive to it, and as a result be more likely to laugh. Still, whether we’re declining into illness or returning to health, our physical strengths and weaknesses will likely modify our outlook and mood.

Certain health-related factors alter our physical and emotional sensitivity in more direct and concrete ways. A condition as simple as hunger or thirst could affect our disposition and thus alter the threshold for our laugh response. Certain drugs—alcohol being the most prevalent, but also analgesics like nitrous oxide—will act to increase our own sense of vulnerability, alter our views concerning others’ vulnerabilities, or reduce our ability to refrain from laughter when we would normally do so.

Long-term disorders must be considered as well. There are some forms of neurological ailments that result in involuntary outbursts of sustained or “forced laughter,” and there is a condition, gelastic epilepsy, where laughter is part of a convulsive episode and not associated with a feeling of amusement. Finally, we must also include the possible effects of various anomalies or injuries, as well as certain psychiatric disorders that may result in an irregular perception of the sufferer’s own vulnerabilities—depression, psychosis, paranoia, and other similar conditions.

Thus, our health—cognitive, emotional, and physical—along with our overall life status, will inevitably influence our perception of what does and doesn’t seem comical or when laughter does and doesn’t seem an appropriate response.

This post was drawn, in part, from Chapter 5 of Why We Laugh: A New Understanding.

© John Charles Simon


Simon, J. C. (2008). Why We Laugh: A New Understanding. Starbrook Publishing.

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