You’ve likely found yourself laughing when someone falls. You know it hurt them. You know they’re embarrassed. And yet, there you are laughing at their expense anyway. Perhaps it’s a bit sadder than that. You could find yourself incredibly distraught over a dear friend or family member’s passing and, for some reason, listening to other people talk about them at their funeral makes you… laugh. What’s going on?

According to studies, this is a way for our subconscious to alleviate our fears associated with the event. By laughing, we send a message that everything is going to be OK. And it totally makes sense if you take into consideration that laughter is incredibly calming. Think about when you’re crying and a friend, trying to soothe you, brings up something funny and you suddenly burst into laughter. Even for a brief moment, you feel lighter. In deeply stressful or emotional situations, laughter can serve as the best medicine.

Research shows that inappropriate laughter sparks as a means to counteract the buildup of stress, sadness and fear. Though bursting out in laughter at a funeral may not be ideal, it can surely prove effective by reducing the stress hormone cortisol and improving short-term memory. Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford also concluded that laughter correlates with an increased pain threshold, potentially by triggering the release of endorphins, which are chemicals that are known to boost social bonding—these can make you feel less alone and, therefore, more comforted.

Furthermore, science has found that, most of the time, our laughter isn’t even a response to something funny. In fact, one study concluded that only 10 to 20 percent of the time is laughter the result of a joke. The other 80 percent is instinctual—it can serve as a mere way to fill the void when no other emotion or action seems valid.

So, next time you feel embarrassed about laughing when someone eats it down the stairs or dare I say dies, don’t beat yourself up too much about it.

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