The Similarities and Differences Between Laughter and Crying


Laughing and crying are very similar. Often derived from the same source, they both look and sound alike, and they serve many of the same functions. There is one significant difference, however, that makes laughter more powerful than tears; but before we examine this important difference, let us first look at the connections.

The poet Kahlil Gibran once wrote, “The selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.” Much comedic material comes out of tearful times. “When somebody steps on the bride’s train or burps during the ceremony,” says comedian Phyllis Diller, “then you’ve got comedy.”

Even the lingo of stand-up comedians reveals a partnership of the comic and the not-so-comic: “I killed the audience” or “They died laughing”–not to mention the punch line.

The laughing/crying connection continues. We often find tears screaming down our face during gales of laughter, and frequently hearty laugh emerges after we have had a good cry. Even facial expressions are similar; sometimes it is hard to tell whether someone is laughing or crying.

The last time you had a good cry you probably felt drained, but you probably felt better. Chances are, you also felt this way after a hearty laugh. The reason for this is another association between crying and laughter: Each provides a powerful cathartic cleansing. Each is an important mechanism for releasing stress and tension.

Tears of sorrow and tears of joy seem to be related too. Dr. William Frey II, a biochemist from Minnesota and co-author of Crying: The Mystery of Tears, has found that emotional tears contain a greater concentration of protein than tears that are produced by other means, such as from cutting an onion. Frey believes that tears resulting from sadness play an important part in removing harmful substances that are produced during stress.

He also speculates that tears of laughter serve the same function as the tears of sorrow. In other words, laughter’s tears may also carry away harmful toxins from the body, and the suppression of them, as in the suppression of emotional tears, increases our susceptibility to stress-related disorders.

But in spite of all the similarities, there is one big difference between laughter and crying: Laughter helps us transcend our suffering; crying does not.

Tears of sadness turn us inward; we cry and feel sorry for ourselves. Laughter, on the other hand, focuses us outward. Laughter expands our vision and gives us a new way of seeing our situation. “The laughing person,” notes author Helmuth Plessner, “is open to the world.” The crying person, on the other hand, only sees his world, his suffering. Perhaps this is why one Yiddish proverb had it that “laughter can be heard farther than weeping.”

Tears of sorrow focus only on one aspect of our loss: our pain. They emphasize the seriousness of the situation, bind us to our suffering, and narrow our vision.

If we are overweight and cry after an eating binge, for example, we add to our suffering by feeling sorry for ourselves. We become the central figure in our own tragedy. A little self-directed humor after an eating binge (“I don’t consider myself fat; I consider myself well insulated”) may not make us physically lighter but can help us become mentally lighter.

When we can allow some humor to be part of our pain, we are not as directly involved in our suffering. It is as if we put on someone else’s glass to view our situation. Everything seems familiar, but there is a slightly different look to the scene.

It is not that our pain itself has diminished; it’s just that the space around it has gotten bigger. Any animal confined to a small pen will eventually become agitated and restless. It will bray, kick, and try to tear down the fence. Expand the fence, and it will be content. “To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow,” said one Zen master, “is the way to control him.” So to quell the pain, try making the fence bigger with humor.

In encouraging the search for humor in our losses, setbacks, upsets, disappointments, difficulties, trials, tribulations, trying times, and all that not-so-funny stuff, I am in no way minimizing the value of crying. Crying is an important part of our pain, loss, and grief. It is one of the primary ways the body relieves tension when under pressure. We must give ourselves permission to cry.

Suppressed tears can linger and continue to cause problems for a lifetime; it can be detrimental to both our physical and mental health. One psychotherapist believes that a major source of violence today is our inability to cry. Another researcher found that there is a close connection between those who rarely cry or have negative attitude about crying and such illnesses as ulcers and colitis.

Crying is important and should not be suppressed. But at some point in our upsets, in our pain, continued crying may not be the healthiest thing for us. We must begin to put what we cry about in perspective so that we can get on with out life. Tears cannot do that. Humor can.

Source: “What You Get When You Laugh,” from The Healing Power of Humor, by Allen Klein


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