When we see someone else enduring terrible misfortune, we tend to laugh. Really, everybody does it–whether we like to admit it or not–and it’s just human nature. But… have you ever wondered why?
Well, I have, so I took to actually researching it. Because, yes, I like to research the psychology of laughter in my spare time. And, lucky for you all, I have found some answers. Or, you know, theories that could lead to potential answers.
First, some Examples of “Being Unlucky”
First, let’s also be clear: it’s really only funny to see someone else being unlucky, not ourselves. Unless you’re super easy going and like laughing at yourself, you know?
However, what defines “being unlucky?” I mean, what’s lucky or unlucky to me may be completely different from you, right?
Well… there are some basic situations that a lot of people can agree are “unlucky.” And we can even define unlucky itself, I think, pretty simply–anything unlucky is something that makes you groan or get frustrated.
Yep, let’s just agree on that.
And, let’s try to agree on some of these situations that perhaps majority of people would consider to be unlucky…
- A person gets a flat tire on the way to an important job interview
- A person drops an ice cream cone on the ground… before getting to even taste it
- A person buys a new sofa only to find it would have been discounted at half-off the next week
- A person who has always wanted to try crab finally does… only to find out they are allergic to shellfish
- A group of people attending an outdoor wedding see a flock of geese passing overhead… then suddenly find themselves covering in bird excrement
Now, why in the world do we think these situations are actually funny?
Theory 1: It’s Funny Because the Situation Is Not Serious
There’s really no easy way to explain this first theory other than… well, sometimes our brains look at a situation as if it were a game. Especially when we are not directly involved, it can feel like we are just observers to someone else’s problems, and we can just watch everything unfold without repercussions to ourselves. It’s all just fun and games for us!
The context of an unlucky situation helps a lot with this, too. For example, if you were watching a video about someone trying to surf for their first time, it may be comical to watch them flail their arms and fall in the water, maybe trying again and again to get the hang of it with no luck. This is just a casual situation; nothing’s serious about it!
However, if you were to see a clip of the same surfer falling off of their board, then being, quite unfortunately, devoured by a shark right in front of your eyes, you probably wouldn’t laugh. Or, at least, I hope not. Because, now, the situation is quite serious, and someone’s life or limbs may be lost in the process–yikes.
Theory 2: It’s Funny Because There’s a Punchline
Every good comedian knows how to deliver a punchline. And, actually, some unlucky situations naturally know how to do the same thing.
Think back on that video of the first time surfer getting on their board. Let’s say there’s a tad bit of build-up in the video–we have to wait patiently as we watch the surfer climb on the board, and then we have to wait a little longer to see them actually paddle out to sea. Then maybe we have to wait to see them try to stand up, and then we have to wait for them to get their balance. But then–aha!–they start flailing about and suddenly topple over into the water. Now, if we hadn’t stuck around to see all that work the surfer put in before falling off their board, would the situation really be funny at all?
The more we know about a situation before the unlucky part happens, the funnier it will seem. This is because that unfortunate part is like the punchline of the joke–and that always gets us going.
Theory 3: It’s Funny Because It’s Not Us
And, again, we have to circle back on this idea that I cannot stress enough: seeing someone else’s misfortune makes us so happy that we aren’t them.
You know, sometimes we laugh out of relief; it’s just our natural response. Sure, it might be a nervous laugh, but it’s still a laugh that releases all our feel-good hormones and affects us in this strange physiological way. And, when we see someone else having a really unlucky time, we may just laugh in relief that we aren’t them–simple as that.
Well, there you have it–the 3 theories/reasons I believe we think being unlucky is funny. Now, I did base these theories in science-y research, such as from this source, so you can feel free to look up this topic for yourself and see why you think we laugh at the misfortune of others. I mean, there’s a lot of psychology behind it, and it’s worth looking into if you’re interested!
And, if you don’t know why I am personally interested in this topic, let me tell you–it’s because I’m an author that writes fiction based on extremely unlucky characters! Well, one character, really, and her name is Emma Lenford.
Emma Lenford is truly the unluckiest 17 year old on the planet. She keeps her sense of humor, though, through her series of seriously ill-fated situations. Her life is basically a sit-com where one traumatic thing after another befalls her, and it’s all out of her control. She’s constantly kidnapped, held at gunpoint, and even arrested for things she honestly didn’t even do!
And, of course, if you like laughing at the misfortune of others (and it’s totally cool to admit it because, like I said, we all do it), then I’d like to let you try reading about Emma Lenford for free!
When you click the button below, you’ll be able to get the full first book in the ‘Emma Lenford’ series delivered right to your email inbox–both the ebook and audiobook versions, too! And, of course, you’ll get to laugh at the poor life of this comedic, unlucky character…
Okay, well, that’s it for today, folks. Let me know in the comments what your favorite theories are on why we laugh at unlucky people and their unlucky situations, and perhaps share your own theories if you have some that I didn’t list here!