Laughing with a good teacher can help overcome phobias or make you comfortable with uncomfortable topics, according to research by Craig Cox and Tony Cramb, two experts in psychology and learning at Utah State University. “It was interesting,” says Cox, who started laughing while saying the word “bullshit.” “When you take a huge, scary word and you make it light and easy to do, people tend to feel more comfortable talking about it, instead of trying to step over it and not confront it.”
While making fun of a thought that might be strange to you is one way to loosen up, using humor can also be effective for learning difficult things, says Carol Dweck, a Harvard professor who teaches psychology at Stanford. “Anyone who has difficulties with skills like learning time and memory will know about the benefits of making jokes at their own expense,” she says. “People who are having trouble in school are more likely to laugh.”
When Dweck asks her classes about their learning styles, she sometimes asks students to look at a list of five nouns and one adjective. In each case, she asks them to first identify themselves by their mood and then what adjective most describes their mood. The adjective opposite to the noun that a student sees when she looks at the list is almost always the same as the adjective opposite to the noun they wrote. Students who are sad are likely to answer negative or negative emotions; students who are angry are likely to answer positive emotions; students who are frustrated are likely to answer negative emotions; students who are anxious are likely to answer positive emotions; and students who are hopeful are likely to answer positive emotions.
She asks them to imagine what they’re most stressed about in relation to that word and then record the result. A student who writes, “I’m stressed about the hardest part of calculus,” and leaves that qualifier is likely to come out as more worried and unhappy than students who write, “I’m stressed about my plan to be a better math student,” but end the sentence with an optimistic “By the time I graduate, I hope to be a better math student.” “By telling the honest truth and setting achievable goals, you can make people more accountable for learning and thus more likely to succeed,” says Dweck.
Joy and self-exploration through humor also have an impact, according to research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in December 2016. When participants were shown some researchers who spoke of the constant struggle of trying to succeed and others who spoke of glory and fulfillment, more of them laughed, said “awwww,” or got “mellow” (but not to “hysterical” levels).
That same research showed that most participants who felt more happiness at the end of each session reported feeling more anger or distress at the beginning. When the researchers showed participants that they were all safe and could return to the study, participants dropped that anger and sadness and started having fun again. “People who had fun instead of becoming angry and distressed at the start were more likely to end up feeling good,” says Kayvan Kadivar, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of British Columbia. “In the short term, researchers found that laughing and experiencing a sense of joy at the end of sessions helped participants’ moods better reflect their mental health goals.”
The project comes as stress has been found to cause higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower the body’s perceived feeling of overall well-being. Daily stress testing uses this study to understand how people’s internal and emotional states directly impact their stress response.