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Fashionable, young Anna Italiano, a television regular and two-time Tony award winner, had played the beauty opposite macho heroes in three Hollywood flicks. She would soon appear as the definitive seductress in a movie that defined a generation.
One night she sat in a trendy restaurant, and who happened by but the frumpy, down-on-his-luck, Melvin Kaminsky. She had met the short, talkative, quirky writer on the set of a variety show earlier that day. Rumor suggests that he had bribed the show’s staff to learn where she would be dining, that way he could appear to run into her by chance.
He had also hounded a mutual friend to introduce them a million times. She had dated many guys who were markedly more famous, rich and handsome. But she allegedly confided in her therapist the very next day that she knew that she had met the man she would marry. What would bring a bright, rising star to fall for such an oddball nebbish?
Fans of old school know these two better as Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. And the secret attractor was humor.
Explaining how people partner can be an impossible task. Some of us are better off assuming that our spouses are irrational and then counting our blessings. Intricate guesses about mate selection come from evolutionary psychology, an interdisciplinary look at how our actions may arise from the strategies we use to find chromosomes to intermingle with our own.
Here’s a topic that can piss off just about everybody. So why is humor attractive?
Lots of reasons, but evolutionary psychology suggests it might be a good way to see if your date would make a good mate. People who have partners who can help their children reproduce will end up with their genes becoming more common in the population.
Funny people tend to be smarter and free of parasites. Humor’s a good way to show off your good genes. And your lack of parasites. Not that every date is an interview for a partner in parenting, but a humorous partner sure beats a gloomy one when you’re sleep deprived and up to your elbows in diapers. A witty person can often make for an enjoyable date, too.
But there’s more to it than just genes. Humor is essentially communication. In this case, it communicates interest and satisfaction. It’s true for first dates, but it seems important long term, too.
Participants in a recent experiment imagined they were in a long-term relationship that they felt either satisfied or unsatisfied about. Evolutionary psychology might predict that the distinction between humor and general conversation might be less important in a long-term relationship than in an initial encounter– at least from a strict, sexual selection, let-me-show-you-my-stellar-genes (and lack of parasites) perspective.
Participants might not need to advertise the chromosomes of comedy once a long-term relationship is already established. In contrast, if humor indicates interest as well as evolutionary fitness, the preference for humor, particularly in satisfied relationships, should remain. Indeed, it did. Humor is important in long-term relationships as well as the one-nighters.
“Humor is important in long-term relationships as well as the one-nighters.”
When imagining themselves in a satisfied relationship, participants reported that they were more likely to turn to humor than conversation. When they imagined an unsatisfying relationship, they claimed that they would be more likely to stick to conversation rather than humor. In short, if your partner’s not joking around anymore, it’s probably time to intervene. If nothing else, turn on the funny again. Or check out the marital therapists in your town.
Those of us who have racked up some double-digit anniversaries can say in complete honesty that marriage and dating aren’t in the same ballpark. They’re not even the same sport.
Nevertheless, humor remains important even for the long, long term. Couples who have been married more than 50 years claim that laughing together is important to staying together. Early work on this topic confirmed that folks in happy marriages appreciate their partner’s sense of humor, even if they don’t laugh at the same jokes. In addition, happily married couples show a lot more laughter and humor than others do, even when they’re asked to argue in the lab.
How do we see the humor or bring it back? It might be as simple as paying attention.
A superb series of new studies in psychology confirm what every Zen meditator has said for centuries: pay attention to the present and delight will follow. This is what mindfulness, focusing awareness on the current moment, is all about. Mindfulness can prevent depression in intriguing ways; it certainly helps us recognize our own thoughts, moods, and experiences. I think that comedy can do the same.
These moments of mindfulness can start right now. And now. And now. They usually click the millisecond we get a punch line. The chuckle of mindfulness often accompanies this shift from “What?” to “That’s funny!” It is often the realization that we’ve made a mistake but, at least in the current moment, all is well.
A whole school of Zen rests on using these sorts of cognitive shifts to reach a mindful, aware, compassionate understanding of life. Practitioners contemplate perplexing stories or questions called Koans. These koans invariably make little sense at first but somehow resolve themselves with extra thought and a touch of intuition.
Attempting to understand them can send the mind reeling. This reeling makes the mind itself more evident, helping people recognize their thoughts as separate from who they are. Suddenly the separation between the thought and thinker is clearer, so the thoughts themselves seem less important. As one of my favorite bumper stickers reads: don’t believe everything you think. It’s easier to question one’s own thoughts when it becomes obvious that they are only thoughts.
Getting a joke is very much the same process. In fact, some koans sound remarkably like setups. What is the sound of one hand clapping? What did your face look like before your parents were born? How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?
Answering these can inspire a lot of laughter, and they just might create enlightenment.
We don’t have a ton of time on earth. Few of us know exactly when we’ll die or how many days we have. The whole world of mirthful laughter certainly stresses a joy in the moment, a calm at the center of things that is available if we only attend to it. The beauty of many jokes comes in the way that they are the incarnation of their own recommendations.
Recognizing that a joke is a joke sends us a message to take all our assumptions less seriously and to hold our thoughts a little more lightly. But explaining this phenomenon is very different from experiencing it, much like explaining a joke, or a relationship, is not the same as getting it. And so the message that humor has for relationships might be the same message it has for everything else. Lighten up!
This essay is based on portions of my book “Humor 101” (Springer Publishing Company, 12/2010).