How laughter reconnects us with life's simple truths

Humour is a powerful thing, says Justin Thomas. We laugh the same way around the world and we do it from birth. We even look for it when choosing a partner.

South African comedian Trevor Noah was spreading laughter in Dubai recently. (Alex Atack / The National)
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Last weekend, US comedian Dave Chappelle gave a rare stand-up performance at the inaugural Dubai Comedy Festival. The festival also featured The Daily Show's Trevor Noah and other great comedians. The UAE is increasingly playing host to internationally renowned comedians. Other recent visitors include Rush Hour star Chris Tucker, the UK's Michael Macintyre and Canada's Russell Peters. We have also witnessed the launch of Dubomedy and similar initiatives dedicated to cultivating local talent. Comedy, it seems, has become the new rock'n'roll, and the stand-up comedian is the 21st century's rock star. But what lies behind our love of laughter?

Firstly, humour brings people closer together. When someone spontaneously erupts at one of our jokes, we know that they get it, and on some level they get us too. It was the Danish comedian Victor Borge who said: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Beyond bringing us closer together, humour is also a great stress reliever; we could even go so far as to claim that laughter is psychotherapeutic.

Perhaps this is why the language of laughter is universal. Silent funnymen like Charlie Chaplin and Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean can elicit belly laughs from Birmingham to Baghdad, and the laughter sounds the same in every language. Humour is innate; we laugh before we learn to speak, and this is even true for children born deaf and blind.

For scientists interested in human behaviour, innateness and universality tend to provide fertile ground for evolutionary explanations. One such explanation of humour is rooted in the Darwinian concept of sexual selection or “mate choice”.

The basic argument 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, the mate and any offspring). Through this lens, the ability to make people laugh is viewed as an honest display of general intelligence, creativity and mental health – traits that advertise protective-provider potential.

Several studies confirm the relationship between humour and general intelligence. One study reported in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts asked participants 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 those students with higher levels of general intelligence as assessed by IQ tests.

More evidence comes from studies analysing the personal advertisements in popular print media. Requests for companions with a “good sense of humour” are common enough to be considered cliché. Further analysis, however, suggests females are generally looking for someone who can make them laugh, while for males, “a good sense of humour” tends to mean a female who will laugh at their jokes.

Humour isn’t always healthy and positive. There is a darker side to mirth that includes the type of derogatory humour used to make other people feel bad, such as sarcasm and 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. This is often associated with psychopathic (antisocial) and manipulative personality types.

To return to healthy humour, there is often a lot of wisdom in the comedic utterances that make us laugh. As the adage goes: “It is funny because it is true.” Perhaps our current attraction to the straight-taking stand-up comic is that much of what they say is true. We have grown tired of all the spin, hype and airbrushed celebrity. Our current love for stand-up comedy is born of our desire to reconnect with truth: an unconscious response to the virulent insincerity endemic in today’s societies.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas