I do not think that many people would be willing to find fault with or argue against the cathartic aspect of laughter, particularly if they tend to cry (a lot) when laughing hard like myself. And although the Relief Theory is in no way the single cause of laughter, it provides great insight into why we laugh as well as the subsequent effects of our laughter. The reasons for why we laugh are so personal and so subjective, but at the same time may be shared or have no apparent purpose at all (it doesn’t always need to have a purpose!). The release that is laughter is at once, a physical activity. I think most would agree that it feels good to laugh, particularly when it is the kind that causes you to literally double over in tears while clutching your abdomen. But the underlying purpose behind our laughter is what will allow for understanding. Why do we laugh? And if laughter is supposed to be a releasing of nervous energy as Spencer and Freud suggest, what does it indicate about the human mind in relation to the physiological aspect of laughter?
Descartes, Freud, and Spencer all touch upon the physical response that laughter elicits. While Descartes proposes that laughter must accompany some level of wonder or hatred, Freud and Spencer look to tease out the more complex workings of the human mind and of human nature. Each are concerned with the “hydraulic” theory and the accumulation and repression of nervous energy. Freud took this theory further by relating laughter and the release of nervous energy to the subconscious’s handling of pain or suffering. He recognizes the “liberating” element of humor, but is most interested with the super-ego’s attempt to bolster the ego through humor in order to protect it from suffering (116). If laughter is the culmination of repressed nervous energy, it will not always be expressed under the most fortunate of circumstances. Although I have not begun my service yet, I can relate other service experiences to this Relief theory Freud is taking up in his essay.
When a young student was absolutely humiliated by her teacher, the rest of the class proceeded to laugh in an awkward, yet lively unison. My immediate reaction to their laughter was to explain to them that this was not funny and they should not be laughing. Typically, when you ask kids to stop laughing they may not comply immediately; however, when I gently suggested that maybe they should not be laughing in this case, they immediately ceased their laughter (the teacher and student were not in the room). While this student was being humiliated, the class was quiet; it was only afterwards that they began to laugh. This particular moment seems to be precisely what Freud is talking about. I would say that the students were using laughter as a defense mechanism after witnessing such an uncomfortable, inappropriate event.
Because the act was not funny, and because I do not think that the students truly found it funny, I recognize their laughter as a means for releasing their repressed feelings in regard to this incident. Humor or laughter attempts to safeguard us from pain: “By its repudiaton of the possibility of suffering, it takes its place in the great series of methods devised by the mind of man for evading the compulsion to suffer- a series which begins with neurosis and culminates in delusions, and includes intoxication, self-induced states of abstraction and ecstasy” (113). Essentially, the class implemented laughter as a way of coping with the pain they had endured at the humiliation of their fellow classmate, but did they really escape unscathed? Descartes may have assessed this situation differently, but I would like to give people more credit than that. Not all laughter is rooted in hatred for others.
This particular example is not exactly the cheeriest of some, but it does shed light on one of the ways humor and laughter may be utilized. People say that a great deal of Freud’s work has since been disproved, but I am personally a fan of many of his ideas, and think that they are interesting and worth considering. In this instance, Freud’s theory of the repudiation of suffering indicates how laughter may not necessarily be the antithesis of pain, but rather serves to combat it.