Dad jokes, Memes, TikToks or funny videos in family chats, what we laugh about is quite different. And even though it may not be something we constantly think about, humour, from its most lighthearted forms to its most absurd ones, greatly impacts our social relations. If two people laugh about similar things, they are more likely to become friends. The same counts for romantic relationships.
In a study conducted by a German online dating platform called Parship, they found that about 90% of the participants said that a good sense of humour is essential for a relationship. In comparison, only 63% said it is good looks. Adding to this it is proven that couples stay longer together if they share the same humour and have insider jokes. But what exactly is humour? What makes a joke funny? How is our humour formed? And what does our humour reveal about our personality?
Let’s start with the definition. For some people, humour is like a best friend you can always rely on, which can let you forget all your worries for a second, like a safe haven or comfort zone when life is getting hard. In an interview, the German neurologist and psychiatrist professor doctor Barbara Wild confirms these theories. According to her, humour is the ability to react cheerfully under challenging situations, focus on the positive, and stay relaxed. In the past, she has done a lot of research on humour. However, today she works practically and looks at how her patients can use humour as a therapy possibility. So humour is not only a source of entertainment but also a way to cope with difficult situations.
What makes a situation funny? Theories of humour
Humour has been studied for centuries. The first theory traces back to Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. All of them represent the superiority theory, which claims that we laugh when we feel superior and about the misfortune of others.
In other words, as Thomas Hobbes said, humour arises from “a sudden glory” (Human Nature, ch. 8) felt when we recognise our superiority over others. But of course, there are also more recent theories. One of them is the so-called relief theory, with its most prominent theorists, Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud. Rather than defining humour, this theory discusses the psychological process that produces laughter.
They state that laughter is a mechanism by which psychological tension is released. According to them, this is also why we laugh whilst tickled. In addition to this, Sigmund Freud expressed another theory, which says that in jokes and humour, people can talk about tabus, especially about erotic things, and that’s why we like to laugh about these things.
Next, there is the incongruity theory. Incongruity theory is the leading approach and has very prominent representatives, including Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard and Arthur Schopenhauer. Basically, this theory says that humour is the perception of something incongruous, a complicated term for unsuitability, which is also broadly used to include ambiguity, logical impossibility, irrelevance and inappropriateness. According to this theory, we find humor in the unexpected and the greater the deviation from the expectation, the greater the humor. One example would be “Why do birds fly south in winter? It’s too far to walk”. After hearing the question, we would instantly expect an explanation for southern movement but we don’t, and the incongruity resolves by realising that the question was focused on the mode of transportation.
Since the main point of this theory is not the incongruity itself but its resolution, its also often called incongruity-resolution theory. If the solution is not given, you would call this kind of humour nonsense, which is a really grotesque and absurd kind of humour. But which theory is the most accurate one now? Prof. Doc. Barbara Wild says in every theory you can find something correct and the answer is rather a mix of all the theories. Sometimes one applies more, and sometimes another one; it varies from the situation. Also, it needs to be said that reducing humour theories into three groups, Incongruity, Relief and Superiority theories, is an oversimplification.
In fact, several scholars have identified over 100 types of humour but no matter how many types of humour there are, we all laugh about different things. While someone might find a super smart joke with an unexpected punch line hilarious but barely laughs about sexual jokes, it could be the other way around for someone else.
How is our humour formed?
Like in any other situation, when you try to find out where something comes from, you start by looking at genetics. To find out the heritability of specific components of humour Prof. Willibald Ruch, who specialised in personality psychology and diagnosis, has conducted a twin study. He found that, for example, liking nonsense humour is not heritable but in contrast to this, the tendency to favour the incongruity resolution jokes could partly be inherited because of their structure and the way you have to think to like them.
So the basis lies in genetics, but the second and most crucial component for personality and character development is your family and friends, especially as a kid and teenager. If you grew up in a super serious family, where rarely anyone makes jokes, of course, you will also become more serious. So the environment has a massive influence on the formation of humour, but besides this, there is another important third component, namely humour consume.
Against the common belief that you either possess humour or not, it is possible to develop humour by the amount you consume it. Practising or using it every day will improve it, regardless if you do so by talking to your friends or consuming it through movies and books. Concluding from this you can say that humour is innate to a certain extent, but how much it develops and in which direction is influenced by our environment and how much we deal with it.
What does humour say about our personality?
In order to answer this, we need to differentiate between the different kinds of humour first. In a questionnaire developed by Willibald Ruch, he divides them into eight categories. Four are rather dark types, like satire, irony, sarcasm and cynicism. On the brighter side, there is benevolent humour, fun, which, e.g. means making silly jokes with your friend group, wit, especially word plays and puns, as well as nonsense.
In 49 statements, you can determine your style of humour or rather your tendency towards some of them since it’s not like you only like and use one and all the others are entirely unappealing to you. The goal is to find out if you criticise social injustices with your humour, if you like to be silly, if you have a cynical opinion of values and norms, etc. In the end, you can find out to which share you use which kind of joke. Willibald Ruch has found out that, for example, your IQ has a relatively low influence on your humour, it is only connected to wit, but other than that, there is no real connection. On the other hand, linguistic intelligence is required to make funny word plays.
What is more impactful than intelligence is what it reveals about your character. If you like more dark types of humour and use, e.g. sarcasm a lot, Ruch has found out that these people tend to be less empathetic with people who experience discrimination and are generally not satisfied with life. On the other hand, benevolent humour, wit and fun are all connected with sociability and can often be linked to good character traits. People liking this brighter humour are also more extroverted and happier in life.
In addition to that the cognitive style of people can reveal a lot about them, and vice versa. If people like it simpler, they also tend to like jokes about blondes and if people like to have a clear resolution at the end of the joke, as is the case in blonde jokes, they tend to be conservative. Meanwhile, people that like more complex or grotesque jokes and have no limits to their fantasies are generally more open to new experiences. These can also be applied to other dimensions like music. Liking jazz or classical music often correlates with liking nonsense humour, while enjoying country music or hits tends to correlate with liking simpler humour with a clear resolution. What’s behind it is the enjoyment of cognitive simplicity or complexity.
So our humour reveals quite a lot about our personality and way of thinking. It is a life skill that helps us cope with difficult situations, and besides genetics, our environment and daily consumption of it significantly influence its development. What makes a situation funny and why we laugh about different things can be explained by many theories, but regardless of the reason we laugh, humour always lights up the mood and improves our relationships.