Laughter: A neglected but vital element of mentoring

IMG_1786There is little success where there is little laughter. ~Andrew Carnegie

by Jean Rhodes

A sense of humor almost always tops the list of traits we desire in friends and partners. But it may also have serious, and largely unacknowledged, implications for youth mentoring relationships. Indeed, a growing number of studies — including one highlighted in this issue — show that, when people share a laugh and have fun together, they end up feeling closer and being more open with each other. In one study, researchers found that, compared to audiences that watched serious movies together, those who were randomly assigned to watch funny movies together were more disclosing and felt closer to fellow audience members. In another study, pairs of students were assigned to throw a ball back and forth or to play charades. Some pairs were instructed to do these activities unimpeded, while in other cases, one member wore a blindfold while the other issued instructions with a spoon her mouth. You guessed it, those in the silly condition laughed more and, by the end of the study, felt a stronger connection with each other

Why is this the case? Humor researcher Glenn Weisfeld (1993) has suggested that “laughter conveys appreciation and gratitude—an intention to reciprocate [laugh] for having received a stimulating idea [joke]” (p. 141). From this perspective, both laughing and making one laugh leads to gratitude. More recently, Treger and colleagues focused on what laughter conveys. As they note, we tend to like those people who like us, and humor conveys the message that the other person likes you. Likewise, we also enjoy interactions that make us laugh and like those with whom we enjoy interacting. As they note, “enjoyable interactions can lead people to form new relationships and help maintain their current relationships”

Mentoring researchers have begun to take note. Drawing on current research, online evidence-based mentor training Mentoring Central has an entire segment devoted to the importance of having fun together. Likewise, in a new study of 15 year olds and the caring adults in their lives, Adar Ben-Eliyu et al. (2021) observed that, in addition to warmth and availability, youth feel an empathic connection when adults are playful in their interactions (i.e., humor, gentle teasing, and jokes). Playful communication served as an outlet for creative expression and the release of tension, as well as a safe context for discussion of emotionally risky topics.  As part of that study, researchers developed a new questionnaire that assesses the extent to which youth felt that an adult “gets” them. The item “Laughs at your jokes or jokes around with you” loaded onto an attunement factor that was predictive of positive academic and behavioral outcomes. Our focus groups as well as research on child therapy have highlighted the importance of humor and laughter for creating a non-threatening climate that is conducive to disclosures and more serious discussions. As we note, the comfort, familiarity, and closeness that humor conveys may be important to youth in feeling engaged and understood by key adults.

Of course, humor in mentoring involves finesse. Adults must maintain boundaries and avoid misinterpretation, sarcasm or inappropriate jokes. But, with mounting research showing the benefits of age appropriate humor, fun and laughter in forging close relationships, these critical components should not be ignored.


Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis. ~Jack Handey, “Deep Thoughts,” Saturday Night Live