How shared laughter can strengthen mentoring relationships


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

by Jean Rhodes

It’s August, so let’s focus on a sunny topic——laughter.  A growing number of studies, including one highlighted in the Chronicle— 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 (yes, that’s a thing) 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”

Relationship expert John Gottman has observed that in any interaction, there are countless ways, both verbal and nonverbal, that people let their needs be known. They do this by making “bids” for connection: “They are asking for attention, interest, conversation, humor, affection, warmth, assistance, support and so on.” Mentors’ attunement to humor bids can make the mentee feel validated.  Likewise, in a 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. Focus groups as well as research on child therapy have also highlighted the importance of humor and laughter for creating a non-threatening climate that is conducive to disclosures and more serious discussions.

Another study exploring shared laughter found that “the proportion of the conversation spent laughing simultaneously”  was uniquely positively associated with global evaluations of relationship quality, closeness, and social support. “The same is true in therapeutic relationships. Marc Karver and his colleagues (2018) conducted a  meta-analytic review on the relation between the therapeutic alliance and treatment outcome in child and adolescent psychotherapy concluded that therapists should “seek to manifest a friendly disposition (even fun/humorous when appropriate).”Finally, in an article “the laughter prescription” researchers noted that the physical act of laughing is linked to chemical changes in the body that can reduce stress and even increase pain tolerance. As they note, laughter can “help prevent diseases, reduce costs, and ensure a healthier population. …With no downsides, side-effects, or risks, perhaps it is time to consider laughter seriously.”

Of course, humor in mentoring relationships involves finesse. Adults must maintain boundaries and avoid misinterpretation, sarcasm or inappropriate jokes. Adolescents are particularly sensitive to feeling that they are being laughed at, so the humor should not be at other’s expense. But, with mounting research showing the benefits of age appropriate humor, fun and laughter in forging close relationships, these critical components should be part of mentoring training.


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


P.S. And, seriously, don’t forget to check out Professor Elizabeth Raposa’s webinar tomorrow.