Imagine you’re on a first date. You’re going to see a comedy. Very soon, you’re laughing so hard you are in tears. Yet your date hasn't chuckled even once. It seems he doesn’t get the jokes.
‘You can probably imagine that he’s not feeling very drawn to you - and maybe you’re not attracted to him,’ says researcher Christian Hahn, who studies humour in relationships.
‘Wherever you go, if you ask people what’s attractive you think it’s going to be tall, dark, and handsome, but more often than not it’s funny,’ Hahn told Love Matters. 'I want someone with a good sense of humour.'
But what is a good sense of humour, actually? Probably one that’s similar to yours. ‘Similarity in humour seems to push that attraction even further than it already is,’ Hahn explains.
We’re attracted to people who make us laugh, plenty of research already suggests. But how does this play out once two people are in a committed relationship? Hahn wondered if people actually want to spend their lives with funny partners.
To better understand the role of humour in long-term relationships, he tracked down 116 married couples who’d been together for an average of 13 years.
Four styles of humour
First, each partner answered questions that revealed what kind of humour style they had. Four different types had been found in past research. ‘If I’m someone who has a positive humour style it means that I’m going to rely more on self-enhancing humour – so building myself up. I’m going to tell a joke that’s self-promoting, not necessarily in an arrogant way,’ explains Hahn. There’s also affiliative humour. ‘For example, if you’re having a bad day, I’m going to tell a joke to cheer you up.’
‘Then, on the flip side, there are the negative humour styles: self-defeating and aggressive humour,’ Hahn says. ‘Self-defeating humour is the person who uses humour to put himself down. For example before a presentation, he says, “Oh, it’s gonna be no good – I’ll probably go home and cry myself to sleep, haha.” That’s not really a positive way to use your humour.’
Aggressive humour involves putting other people down. ‘Sometimes it can be playful; sometimes it can border on other things. But sometimes humour is just plain aggressive,’ says Hahn.
Would married partners in the study have a similar sense of humour to one another? Hahn had a hunch that self-esteem might be involved, so he also had each partner answer questions related to how they viewed themselves.
There’s truth to the belief that couples enjoy the same kind of jokes, the research showed. The married partners in the study were likely to have similar humour styles to one another. People seem to look for long-term partners who use humour in the same ways they do, says Hahn. Interestingly, this was especially true for positive humour.
Laughing yourself closer
Why would couples have a similar sense of humour? Just as Hahn suspected, self-esteem has something to do with it. In the study, the higher it was, the more likely partners were to share their humour style. ‘That follows an old hypothesis called self-enhancement,’ he explains. ‘Basically, the more you like yourself, the more you’re going to want to be around people who are like you.’
But even people with lower self-esteem expressed humour in similar ways as their significant other. The reason seems obvious – it’s enjoyable to be with someone you can laugh with. Doing so is actually linked to feeling closer, research has shown. What’s more, people who share a sense of humour with their partner are more likely to think he or she is great and to have an optimistic outlook for the future of the relationship.
- Birds of a Feather Laugh Together: An Investigation of Humour Style Similarity in Married Couples. Europe’s Journal of Psychology (2016) 12(3):406-19, Christian Hahn, co-authored by Lorne Campbell
- Interview with Christian Hahn