Funny in any language, laughter is worth standing up for

Humour is viewed as an honest display of general intelligence, creativity and mental health. Now wonder, our love for those who make us laugh is increasing.

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Chris Tucker, one of America's most successful comedians, performed at the du Forum on Yas Island on Friday. The UAE has recently played host to several other internationally renowned stand-up comedians, notably Canada's Russell Peters and Lebanon's Nemr Abou Nassar.

The UAE is now also home of Dubomedy and other similar initiatives dedicated to developing and promoting local comedic talent.

Both locally and globally, our love for those who make us laugh seems to be increasing. The British comedian Peter Kaye has recently earned a place in the 2013 Guinness Book of World Records for the best-selling comedy tour of all time, with over one million tickets sold between February 2010 and November 2011. Comedy is undoubtedly the new rock and roll, and the stand-up comedian is the 21st century's rock star.

But what lies behind our love of laughter?

A good laugh is invigorating, medicinal even. They say the shortest distance between two people is laughter. Laughter has almost magical properties, can instantly defuse stressful situations, and when someone spontaneously erupts at one of our humorous witticisms we instantly know that they get us.

The language of humour is universal; even the silent mirth-makers, like Charlie Chaplin and Mr Bean, are able to elicit belly laughs from universal audiences. And laughter sounds the same in any language. Producing and responding to humour appears innate; we laugh before we learn to speak, and this is also true for children born deaf and blind.

This apparent innateness and universality has given rise to evolutionary explanations of humour. Psychologists have advanced numerous evolutionary theories. One particularly well-supported and well-investigated idea is rooted in the Darwinian concept of sexual selection, or as it is also termed, "mate choice".

The argument here is that certain physical and behavioural traits are attractive to the opposite sex by virtue of being signals of either reproductive validity (health and fertility), or protective provider potential (the ability to take care of, and provide for mate and offspring). Through this evolutionary lens, humour, the ability to make people laugh, is viewed as an honest display of general intelligence, creativity and mental health.

There are many studies demonstrating fairly clear relationships between the ability to be humorous, and general intelligence. A recent study, published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, asked students to write witty captions for a selection of cartoons from The New Yorker magazine. The captions were then independently rated; those rated funniest tended to be the products of the more intelligent students, that is, those with higher IQs.

Another source of evidence for the mate-choice hypothesis comes from studies extensively analysing the contents of the personal ads sections within popular print media. Requests for companions with a "good sense of humour" are so common as to be cliché. Further analysis of these data suggests females are generally looking for someone who can produce humour (make them laugh), while for males, a female with a good sense of humour tends to mean a female who will laugh at their jokes.

But humour is not always positive. Other psychological explorations of humour have identified a darker side of mirth that includes the type of derogatory humour used to make other people feel bad; this aggressive humour includes sarcasm and cruel but witty put-downs.

Similarly negative is self-defeating humour; this is where a person constantly makes themselves the butt of their own jokes, to gain acceptance and approval from other people. Research published in 2010 suggests aggressive and self-defeating humour is associated with psychopathic and manipulative personality types.

These darker aspects aside, however, humour is generally healing. As the adage goes, "It is funny because it is true."

Perhaps we have grown tired of all the spin, the airbrushing and the manufactured celebrity. Our current love for stand-up comedy is perhaps our desire to reconnect with truth: an unconscious response to the insincerity, corporate decorum and falseness endemic in today's societies.

Justin Thomas is an assistant psychology professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi

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