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Keshav Mantha
Professor Michael Ingram
English 0902
19 September 2013
Breathing a Sigh with the Relief Theory
Time is a commodity. However, everyone has time for a good joke. A good laugh can
brighten up even the most somber persons day. However, the source of the laughter can
sometimes be in question. The Merriam-Webster English Dictionary defines laughing as
showing that you are happy or that you think something is funny (laughing), but what
makes something as funny as it is? What, in essence, makes us laugh and causes our
amusement? Many theories exist that outline psychoanalytically why we laugh and why we
find certain things funny. These theories connect many branches of psychology and science to
humor. In the beginning of his book The Psychology of Humor, Rod Martin points out that,
in reference to a variety of areas such as biology, mental and physical health, sociology,
education, therapy, and many more, understanding of the psychology of humor requires an
integration of ndings from all these areas (Martin 2). One theory in particular, the Relief
Theory of Humor, does a better job connecting humor and laughter to the various fields than
others. The concepts in the Relief Theory effectively connect biology, psychology, and other
sciences to humor and laughter.

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The Relief Theory has an interesting psychological basis. The theory states that people
laugh in order to release or vent nervous, built up energy. Laughing is a way for an individual
to forget about other problems for a while and to redirect their energy in a manner that has a
positive impact on their body. Furthermore, the feeling of relief may be heightened by the
removal of a discomfort or threat. As such, the theory goes beyond its psychology and
actually hits a physiological note on laughter. Wilkins and Eisenbraun share that even
laughing at something that doesnt have a preconceived notion of stress relief can then result
in a feeling of mirth (351). They go on to further discuss the health aspects of the Relief
Theory. Relief may be either mental or physical, and in any event, increased stress always
heightens medical issues. Thus, stress relief induced by laughter can be a catalyst towards
more positive symptoms health-wise (Wilkins and Eisenbraun The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophys article The Philosophy of Humor, written by John Morreall, relates the
meaning of the Relief Theory to a pressure relief valve. In a steam boiler, pressure continues
to build up until the relief valve allows the expulsion of excess energy. The pressure relief
valve in this case is the laughter, which allows for the release of nervous energy built up in the
body which is analogous to the steam boiler (Morreall).
According to another of Morrealls works, Taking Laughter Seriously, the history of
the Relief Theory goes back to the 18 century, when in 1711 Shaftesbury in an essay was one

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of the first to hint at its possibility (20). Shaftesbury noted that any constraints people have
within themselves, will somehow be relieved whether it be burlesque, mimicry, or
buffoonery and as such, through laughter (Morreal 20). This idea was further developed by
Herbert Spencer in 1860 (Smuts). Spencer gives the example of a child holding its foot back
while being tickled, causing the child to laugh and be excited even more than it wouldve if it
succumbed to the tickling (395). Similarly, he states that a buildup of nervous energy caused
by something even as simple as a tough day at work can be discharged through laughter by
the nervous system; all it takes is a good joke (396-397).
The Relief Theory argues that humor is a homeostatic mechanism which reduces
subconscious psychological tension. Consequently, amusement and laughter result from the
release of nervousness from the human body. People use humor to overcome inhibitions and
reveal repressed desires in social circumstances where they would otherwise feel
uncomfortable. (Meyer 310). The Relief Theory can sometimes also explain a build-up of
nervous tension from prohibitions. These prohibitions may be socio-cultural as well as
societal (Morreal 21). Many people attend comedy shows just for this reason. A good
comedian is able to adeptly take what is usually a taboo subject and turn it into something the
audience can laugh about, and according to the Relief Theory, relieve their stresses about.

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Instances of the Relief Theory in action are superfluous. Any kind of induced laughter
that causes a release of nervous tension agrees with the concepts of the theory. The famous
Indian comedian Russell Peters is someone who does this very effectively. In his comedy
shows, Peters takes numerous racial stereotypes and exploits them on stage for the amusement
of his audience. As a result, any tensions built up as a result of racial taboos by audience
members would be released because in any ordinary situation, they would not talk about the
racial slurs. In a small closed setting with ones friends, any discussion about a controversial
subject, like religion, can spark some kind of humor built up by tensions or thoughts involving
that subject.
As per the definition of a theory, none are perfect on their own, and the Relief Theory
is no exception. While Spencer laid adequate groundwork for the development of the Relief
Theory, many others down the road built upon it. However, much of the additions to the
Relief Theory werent actual additions, but rather affiliations with other theories of laughter
and humor. The Relief Theory of laughter provides a basis for the release of nervous energy
through laughter. Thus, it doesnt provide a great distinction between what is humorous and
non-humorous laughter (Smuts). Sigmund Freud, in his Jokes and Their Relation to the
Unconscious, relates that we save up psychic energy from our day to day interactions and we

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release that energy through laughter (28-29). His assertions might explain the release of
energy built up over time, but they dont explain the repression of wants or desires.
The Relief Theory seems to work best when joined with other theories of laughter and
humor. The Incongruity Theory states that if something is out of the ordinary or odd, then it is
laughable (Martin 63). It explains any kind of random situation that the Relief Theory has no
explanation for. If a man runs dancing onto the street with no awareness of his surroundings
and gets hit by a vehicle without much injury, it would provide any onlookers amusement just
because of the absurdness of the situation. The Superiority Theory states that when we see
someone perform an action that proves them inferior to us in any way, it causes us to laugh
(Martin 43-44). If someone spills a drink all over themselves at a dinner, the other diners
would be highly inclined to laugh because it made the original look like a fool in a crowd.
The Relief Theory would not be able to explain that scenario because there is no account of
stress relief due to a buildup of nervous tension. While the Relief Theory can explain the
relief of tension, it doesnt have any explanations for awkward or funny situations.
Overall, the Relief Theory is a fantastic component of the many theories of laughter. It
is one of the few that can has both a psychological and physiological basis for its concepts.
Like all of the theories of humor and laughter, however, it isnt complete without the others,
as it cannot explain away not, if even most, humorous situations. Laughter is an intriguing

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psychological happening, but with the Relief Theory, we can explain an enormous part of
human behavior - stress relief - that other theories cannot. While it does work best in
conjunction with other theories, it can provide to many a fantastic answer to the question of
why and when we laugh.
Works Cited
Eiseinbraun, Amy, and Julia Wilkins. "Humor Theories and the Physiological Benets of
Laughter." Holistic Nursing Practice (2009). Print.
Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. New
York: Norton, 1960. 25-30. BO CONNELL. Web. 19 Sept. 2013
John, Morreall. "Philosophy of Humor." Stanford University. Stanford University, 20 Nov.
2012. Web. 19 Sept. 2013. <>.
"laughing" Merriam-Webster, 2011. Web. 19 September 2013.
Martin, Rod A. The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach. Amsterdam: Elsevier
Academic, 2007. Print.
Meyer, John C. "Humor as a Double-Edged Sword: Four Functions of Humor in
Communication." Communication Theory 10.3 (2000): 310-31. Web. 19 Sept. 2013.

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Smuts, Aaron. "Humor." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 20 Apr. 2006. Web. 19 Sept.
2013. <>.
Spencer, Herbert. "The Physiology of Laughter." Herbert Macmillan's Magazine (1859).