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Not All Laughter is About Joy

Robin Williams, a creative, exuberant and dynamic man who had an infectious sense of humor, made the choice to end his life on August 11, 2014.  The combination of depression or bipolar disorder, substance abuse, and a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease was enough to make this man feel like life had no more good to offer.

In our line of work, understanding the different meanings of laughter has tremendous value. Understand that not all laughter is about joy. If someone with seemingly as much joy as Robin Williams could succumb to depression it begs the question: how valid is laughter as a marker for happiness?

What does laughter even mean?

Laughter and smiling is a central part of the human experience.  It spans across all cultures, ages, and socioeconomic differences.  But even though laughter is a part of the universal human vocabulary it is often so misunderstood.

People laugh to express a broad range of emotional states and not all of them are about joy and happiness. People laugh when they feel amused, surprised, or nervous but also when they feel sad, skeptical, or afraid. Laughter can even be an expression of outright hostility or aggression.

Think of the sinister laughter of a comic book villain or the boundless joy of a toddler at play.  All laughter…but very different.  It can become confusing. Because of this broad variation, it takes a bit of interpersonal savvy and observation to really understand what underlies certain types of laughter.

Laughter that is mean spirited:

Today all throughout social media and television, it is common to laugh at people that are fighting or have hurt themselves. It is easy to recognize that cynical or sarcastic tone that underlies certain types of humor. Satire and dry humor aimed to criticize can even cross the line into being intentionally hurtful.

Have you ever hear of the word “Schadenfreude”? It is used to describe the affect blend of joy and taunting.

Laughter to comfort ourselves in awkward situations:

How often have you found yourself laughing and not knowing why? Sometimes we laugh at jokes we don’t hear, just to match the tempo of those around us. Laughter is contagious.

On the other extreme of mean spirited laughter, is “etiquette laughing”. Joining in on jokes we don’t find funny just to help us get along, show agreement or to (unconsciously) gain favor with people in positions of power.

Laughter is an instinctual way to discharge nervous energy, like during presentations, professional meetings, and funerals. We even see people use laughter to soothe feelings of insecurity. Making continually self-depreciating jokes to connect with people and feel more comfortable.

Laughter as a mask

Laughter can be a great healing force for people in pain, but it can also serve as a mask for those that are suffering. It almost creates an impenetrable force field that stuffs the vulnerability and keeps uncomfortable feelings at bay.

I can’t help but wonder if that is part of what Robin Williams experienced.  Knowing that the world expected humor from him, perhaps it was easier to give the crowd what they wanted rather than deal with what was behind the laughter.

Williams had an amazing range of films, all of which had the power to evoke genuine emotion.  But the one that weighs so heavy in my mind now is “What Dreams May Come.” This film tells the story of how a man fought through the supernatural underworld to reach his depressed wife that had just committed suicide. That film will always bear a new significance now.  I so appreciate all of the joy and beauty that Robin Williams brought to this world.

You never quite know what is behind a laugh, especially if it takes one of those confusing forms that are mean spirited or birthed in awkwardness.  If you are confused by the laughter of a client or a friend…take a moment to dig deeper…below the surface and explore what that laughter can teach you about the world the other person is living in.

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