Laughter and love boost each other in romantic relationships
A new study from Singapore sheds light on the role of humour in established romance.
08 January 2024
By Emma Young
A good sense of humour regularly scores highly on lists of most desired traits in a romantic partner. But while there’s plenty of research exploring why we find funny people appealing, and how humour might help on a first date, there’s been relatively little research into the role of humour in established relationships. As Kenneth Tan at Singapore Management University and colleagues put it in a recent paper in Psychological Science: “Are couples who are funny more satisfied with each other, or are satisfied couples more able to see the funny side of their partners?” The team recruited 108 couples for a diary study, with the aim of finding out.
The couples were all at the Singapore Management University and had been in their relationship for an average of 18 months. Every evening for seven days, they used 7- or 8- point scales to rate, during that day, how funny they had found their partner; how humorous they had been, or tried to be, with their partner; how satisfied they felt with their relationship; how committed they felt to their partner; and, finally, how committed they felt their partner was to them.
The researchers found clear links between humour production, humour perception, and perceptions of the strength of the relationship. On days when one individual was particularly satisfied or committed or felt that their partner was highly committed to them, they also reported bringing more humour into interactions with their partner, as well as finding them funnier.
The analysis also showed that greater relationship satisfaction and commitment (on both sides) on one day were linked to an increase in both humour production and perception the following day — but the reverse wasn’t quite true. On the day after a day with more humorous interactions, participants reported feeling more satisfied with their relationship, though not more committed. (This might simply be because feelings of commitment fluctuate less than feelings of satisfaction, however.)
The main findings held for both men and women, and didn’t relate to the length of the relationship. Overall, they fit with the theory that humour functions as a “tool for relationship maintenance”, signalling continued interest in the other person. “Our results were consistent with conceptualisations of humour as an indicator of continued compatibility or a lack of conflict,” the team writes.
There are some limitations to the work. This was a self-report diary study, so could not involve objective measures of behaviour, and the types of humour used (which vary person-to-person) wasn't a factor the team looked at in this instance. Also, though the sample was not WEIRD, Singapore’s population is highly educated, industrialised and rich, so not globally representative — meaning that these results might not be found elsewhere. However, east Asians are less likely than people in Western cultures to use direct expressions of positive emotion to communicate feelings of closeness, the researchers write. “That we still found humour effects in Singapore indicates that these effects may also hold in Western samples,” they argue.
The research does, however, provide an answer to the team’s initial question. Humour improves perceptions of relationship quality and perceptions of better relationship quality promote the use of humour and perception of humour. The team concludes that in an established relationship, humour can, then, be “mutually transformative.”
Read the paper in full: https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797623120313