Have you ever had one of those belly laughs that is so good your sides ache? Or that even makes you snort a little bit? How about a slip of laughter that just won’t go away? Even when you try to subdue it, the chuckles just keep bubbling up.
I am one of those people who will always laugh at your jokes, even the cheesy ones. My laugh is a little too loud and often cuts through the noise in the room. A short, big burst of happiness when something hits me just right. Sometimes, that something is another person’s own laughter.
Laughter feels great. Even the physicality of making that “ha, ha, ha” sounds releases endorphins.
It is indeed the best medicine, and I think we need more of it in student affairs.
Impactful programming. Assessment. Persistence. Mental health concerns. Risk prevention and accountability. Inclusion.
All of these things are crucial to our work. From contributing to student development to trying to prove the effectiveness of our departments, there is much that seems serious about our roles and actions as practitioners. We take ourselves so seriously … that sometimes the students we work with don’t quite track with us. In the incomparable words of the Indigo Girls, I propose there would be great benefit to “[taking our lives] less seriously, it’s only life after all.” How? Through humor. Through laughter.
Laughter, the reaction to humor, predates mankind. It’s been noted to help improve blood pressure, reduce aggression, energize, and even boost the immune system. For student affairs professionals, humor can have a real impact on connecting with students and others, as well as promoting learning.
Outside of the higher education realm, corporations believe in the power of humor. Even those as big as Microsoft train their employees how to integrate it into their daily jobs. For Microsoft, it is one of the 13 competencies for professional individual excellence, alongside traits like compassion and listening.
People pay attention to things that prompt emotion and easily forget things found boring. This seems like common sense, but brain science backs this up. When we try to understand a joke, the areas of the brain connected to learning are activated. Humor works like a brainteaser. Laughter helps people create associations. When used in the classroom, a little comedy can boost student performance as it increases motivation and cuts anxiety. When humor is interspersed in a lecture, students are more likely to recall information, even on detailed and complex subjects. As the learning process becomes more enjoyable, students grow more confident, motivated and engaged.
Humor doesn’t just benefit the students; it benefits us. Students perceive humorous instructors (or practitioners in our case) as more competent communicators who are more in tune with their needs. They respect those who can poke fun at themselves.
If humor works in statistics and math courses, it can definitely work in our educational programs or even one-on-one advising meetings. So many times when we need to discuss difficult topics with students, we seek to have this epic conversation that will help them see the light, understand their grand purpose, or move from one vector to the next. We approach such conversations with the gravity we think they deserve; sometimes (even unbeknownst to us) we miss the mark.
How could using humor help? A clever metaphor or even a bit of healthy self-deprecation cuts tension and anxiety and help us explain the situation. It makes us more human, more approachable. In the moment, it opens the door to connections in a situation where the student might perceive a closed door. In the long-run, it creates a higher probability the student will remember the lesson.
When you can laugh together, it strengthens your connection. It’s why inside jokes foster friendship—they create a shared experience. When used appropriately, humor shows empathy and understanding. It unites people.
Here are tips from my experience (and learning from others) to integrate humor in your work:
Embrace the funny stories in your own life and find moments to share them with others. What have they taught you?
Even in challenging situations, look for irony where appropriate.
Use clever metaphors when teaching or advising to create memorable connections to complex material.
Start conversations or presentations with a joke or amusing anecdote.
Think about things your students will find funny, like this or this, or even things we practitioners laugh at, like this or this. How can you replicate the humor in these “tools” in your communications or programs (even when educating on serious topics)?
Keep something playful in your space that prompts laughter, like a childhood toy or funny sign.
Avoid humor that is inappropriate or puts down others. This might include mockery, sarcasm or ridicule.
Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. Self-humor is safe and has been shown to increase respect.
And laugh out loud! After all, it is contagious.
Heather Kirk is the Director of Education & Communications for a national women’s fraternity. You can find her on Twitter @hmk0618.