“Laughter is the best medicine.” We’ve heard the expression time and again. For decades, researchers have explored how humor helps patients relieve stress and heal. Melissa B. Wanzer, EdD, professor of communication studies at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, has taken it one step further with her research on how humor helps medical professionals cope with their difficult jobs. She also looked at how humor affects the elderly and how it can increase communication in the workplace and in the classroom.
She wondered: how do health care providers care for terminally ill people and manage to come back to work each day? So she asked them, in large-scale studies. Their answer? Humor. Wanzer has found humor to be beneficial in other areas as well.
“If employees view their managers as humor-oriented, they also view them as more effective,” notes Wanzer. “Employees also reported higher job satisfaction when they worked for someone who was more humor-oriented and used humor effectively and appropriately.” Wanzer and her colleagues found that humor is an effective way to cope with on-the-job stress – again, when used appropriately.
Wanzer also recently collaborated on research that found aging adults who used humor more frequently reported greater coping efficacy, which led to greater life satisfaction. This was the third study she conducted, with three different populations, where the conclusion was the same.
But what if you don’t consider yourself to be particularly funny? Wanzer says that while you can’t change your personality, you can find ways to integrate humor into your day-to-day life and change your communication patterns. “Self-disparaging humor, making fun of oneself, is a very effective form of humor communication, as long as it is not done excessively,” says Wanzer, who adds that telling jokes is just a small portion of humor communication. “I also tell people to use what is around them; props can be humorous too, so long as they are used appropriately and are not perceived as distracting.”
Wanzer teaches a course in “Constructive Uses of Humor,” at Canisius College, which always fills to capacity. Students are required to prepare and perform a stand-up routine in front of the class. But the class is not all fun and games. Students read through journal articles and interpret factual studies on humor. One such case involves Southwest Airlines’ strategic effort to integrate humor into the workplace, in order to create a positive environment for employees and customers.
Wanzer’s research also shows that students report learning more from teachers who use humor effectively. “Regardless of the content, humor seems to be beneficial and productive,” says Wanzer about the importance of the constructive uses of humor. “It helps to get the point across in about in almost any situation.”