Laughter: The smart solution

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A long-time member of Congress privately described how things had changed on Capitol Hill in his three decades there. In the early years both “sides” talked to one another — not just about legislation, but about life. Now, he said, that’s uncommon. Politicians, Americans, are too divided.

Laughter can bridge such divides, bringing us together again in common humanity. Case in point: George W. Bush and Michelle Obama, frequently photographed giggling, hugging, ribbing, laughing with one another. Pals. Why? The former president says she gets his stumbling sense of humor.

A sense of humor can do more than calm a political maelstrom. It may be a sign of intelligence (or better use of the intelligence we have). It attracts romantic interest. It makes us healthier. According to multiple studies and summarized by the Mayo Clinic, laughter not only relieves stress, it reduces physical tension, boosts circulation, and improves organ function.

Apparently that includes the brain.

Forty years ago, scientists William Hauck and John Thomas tested correlations between humor and intelligence in fourth- through sixth-grade students. They found those with a greater sense of humor tended to have higher rates of intentional learning, retention, and creativity. And of course, they had more fun doing it.

OK, but what kind of intelligence are we talking about? The Hauck and Thomas study measured IQ, funny associations, and test performance. There are other types of intelligence, other ways we use our brains to get the most out of life.

Comedians, for example, generally demonstrate high social or emotional intelligence. That’s why they’re funny; they can string together elements of relatable human behavior, with a punchline the rest of us might not have come up with. Researcher Samuel Janus conducted two studies in 1975 and 1978 (American Journal of Psychoanalysis) of nationally famous comedians, finding their IQs higher than average in both women and men.

University of Mexico psychologist and anthropologist Gil Greengross built on that in 2011 by comparing IQ and personality traits of 400 students with 31 comedians. Comedians scored higher than students on verbal intelligence and, obviously, various styles of humor. Among comedians, openness, agreeableness, and extroversion correlated positively with humor. However, intelligence correlated negatively with self-defeating (e.g., belittling or self-deprecating) humor.

Apparently smart people generally don’t disparage themselves.

Greengross also found humor is useful in romance. In another study co-published in 2011 with Geoffrey Miller in the journal Intelligence, humor predicted greater mating success. They also found (sorry, ladies) a sense of humor in general was more highly correlated in males. In other words, men are funnier, at least during courtship.

Sure, laughing is relaxing, thus a natural draw — be it for romance or simple friendship. But Greengross and Miller also concluded that both sexes see a sense of humor as a good parenting trait, and thus attractive in a potential mate.

So ditch the pickup lines and work on the punchlines.

University of Kansas communications professor Jeffrey Hall conducted a series of three studies involving more than 500 people, reported in 2015. He did not find a link between humor and intelligence in couples, but he did learn the more times a man tried to be funny, and the more times a woman laughed at his jokes, the more likely she was interested. Oddly, the reverse was not true for women who attempted humor. But it did suggest that when a pair laughs together, they get along better. His latest research this year confirms that; he surveyed 39 studies and 15,000 subjects solidifying the link between laughter — jointly shared, more than performance-style — and establishing a secure relationship.

That’s what we need nationwide — more laughs, less angst. Regardless of political differences — in fact, because of them — a country thus divided might work together again with a page from the George-and-Michelle book, and laugh more.

“I’ll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office.” — George W. Bush

• • •

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network with a comedic partner. Jokes welcome at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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