Why Adults Don’t Laugh

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Why do we stop laughing? Idea Machine Project Day 37 by Sheree Martin for The Ben Franklin Follies

For Day 36 of the Idea Machine, Claudia Altucher asks us to consider why adults stop laughing.

The obvious answer is that we get busy and beaten down my life’s challenges. But I think the real reason goes deeper into cultural norms and socialization that date back into the medieval age.

1. From The Court Jester and Other “Fools” to Stephen Colbert

The professionalization of humor began with the court jester, whose job was to use humor to provoke, question and guide the ruler toward better (or at least more thoughtful) choices.

Shakespeare and other dramatists used fools as foils to reveal the foibles of human nature and this practice continues today, as we often see the silly character as the one who grasps a truth and unpackages it in a way that others find enlightenment.

But despite the so-called “wisdom of a fool,” our culture associates the word fool and follies with a lack of intellectual sophistication, stupidity and/or bad choices. That’s one reason I almost decided to kill-off The Ben Franklin Follies. I use the term Follies to reference a variety show featuring different ideas, but most people associate follies with bad choices and foolish behavior.

We know from the study of linguistics that words matter. In western culture (perhaps others, as well), our language associates humor and silliness with foolishness, simple-mindedness and frivolity. We learn this, implicitly, as we are socialized into adulthood.  See Bandura’s social learning theory for an explanation of how we learn through socialization.

"William Merritt Chase Keying up" by William Merritt Chase - The Athenaeum: Home - info - pic. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“William Merritt Chase Keying up” by William Merritt Chase – The Athenaeum

Image retrieved from Wikimedia: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Merritt_Chase_Keying_up.jpg#mediaviewer/File:William_Merritt_Chase_Keying_up.jpg

I want to study and explore my hypothesis in a deeper way—Perhaps others have made the same point. I need to move on, for now.

2. Puritanism

H. L. Mencken one defined Puritanism as:

The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.

H.L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy

Puritanism arose during the Protestant Reformation, which not coincidentally arose during a time when court jesters advised kings and Shakespeare used the fool as foil.

Comedy (and drama) was professionalized and performed by actors on stages. For a variety of reasons, acting and the theatre were considered less-than-savory. I’ll skip the details here.

Laughing typically arises out of simplicity, frivolity and absurd situations. Laughing makes us feel good and is associated with happiness, thus the Puritan morality code tended to punish or denigrate anything that might trigger laughter.

3. Judeo-Christian “Work Ethic”

This is a more general values-related reason and can be traced, in some ways, back to reason number 2.

As we moved through the Industrial Age, our social norms focused on the “nose to the grindstone” approach to “success.” When our noses are being ground down in service of corporate masters, we don’t have time to laugh.

4. Silliness Usually Gets Punished at School

See number 3 above. Public schools existed to prepare workers for corporate workplaces. Church-affiliated schools served the same purpose, with the added component of religious training to moderate or mitigate against frivolous pursuits of folly.

School is a huge influence in how we are socialized into the cultural norms that are valued by the dominant forces of our society.

5. Laughter in the Workplace Goes Unrewarded

The number one priority in the 20th century workplace was efficiency and that was achieved through systemization and specialization.

There’s no room for spontaneous frivolity in those types of environments. In fact, any thing that disrupts efficiency or doesn’t fit within the system gets punished or, at best, ignored and weeded out through rejection and performance reviews.

6. “There’s a time and place to laugh” and it’s “not here.”

Outside of work, we have all sorts of social norms and about when and where we can laugh. We learn those rules, as I explain above, through observation and socialization that Bandura has documented well in his social learning theory.

7. Professional Comedy

See “the court jester” in number 1, above. Today, comedy is even more professionalized than ever, in the sense that some people are recognized as comics, comedians, paid humorists and everyone else is a spectator or reader of those “professionals” or aspiring professional humorists.

We get our jokes and laughs by watching the professionals deliver monologues or comedic sketches that we usually consume via a screen. We learn that humor comes from the others, not from within ourselves and our friends and family.

Humor is now a product to be consumed to produce laughter, not something we do spontaneously.

8. Separation & Isolation

I suspect most people laugh more when they’re around a community or family setting where they feel comfortable and reasonably-connected.

Since we spend more time alone or isolated in our offices and cubicles (or with our headphones on, consuming entertainment) we don’t interact with others as often as we may have in the past.

9. “Nose to the Grindstone”

This reason is related to reasons 3, 5 and 6, but it’s not quite not the same. Here I’m focused more on the demands of our personal lives and the amount of time we spend at work, rather than the corporate system that requires us to always be on task. This is about the overall structure of our lives, rather than the expectations of our workplace.

We Americans are so busy with all the chores and responsibilities of work—not to mention all the stuff we have to do when we’re officially “off the clock”—that we don’t even think about laughing or humor, or even finding humor in the absurdity of all the things that are distracting us from actually living.
The State of the 40-Hour Workweek

10. Depression

Due to a combination of reasons 1 through 9, combined with poor diet and lifestyle choices, our brain chemicals are out of whack and we just don’t have enough feel-good chemicals circulating in our body. In some cases, our bodies can no longer make the right chemicals or process them correctly because we don’t get the right nutrients or can’t absorb the nutrients we take in due to inflammation and leaky guts.

That’s why SSRIs and other anti-depressants are so highly-prescribed today. According to data from the Center for Disease Control, during the 2007-2010 survey period, 11.9% of US population (all ages) had received at least one prescription for one or more antidepressants during the previous 30 days (Table 93, p. 291).


So those are my 10 reasons that adults rarely laugh. What do you think? This is the kind of idea-generation topic I like. In general, I’m better at complex ideas than silly ones, and I think this post helped me to understand why that may be the case.

I’m blogging my way through Claudia Altucher’s book, Become an Idea Machine [Amazon affiliate link.]

Here’s why I chose to publish these daily posts about ideas, big and small, on The Ben Franklin Follies.

About Sheree

Change Catalyst, Idea Explorer, Dot-Connector, Square Peg