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Humor - A key ingredient to engagement, meaningful connection, and creativity in youth development

By Amy Sparks

A lady with flashy leggings sitting on a couch reading a book which covers her face
Student: Is Thursday crazy legging day or something?

Teacher: It is now.

The tale you're about to hear is true. Picture a packed tenth grade English classroom, 30 students begrudgingly tackling Shakespeare, and their 38-year-old teacher, freshly licensed and new to the teaching scene, adding excitement by flaunting leggings that had a design of the "Eye of London" ferris wheel on them. Over time, this teacher expanded her collection for each "crazy legging Thursday."

That teacher was me, and I still don't take myself too seriously.

According to Dr. Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, instructors of "Humor: Serious Business" at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, humor enhances intelligence, fosters meaningful connections, and stimulates innovative thinking. Laughter releases hormones that make us happier, more trusting, less stressed, and even slightly euphoric. Injecting humor into professional interactions can alter brain chemistry, benefiting youth, volunteers, and colleagues on the spot.

Being goofy makes us smarter: Humor aids memory

A Pew Research poll revealed that viewers of humorous news shows remember more current events than those relying on traditional news sources. My mantra, "No laughter, no learning," guides my approach to designing engaging learning experiences for both youth and adults. Incorporating humor makes content more memorable.

Humor builds bonds and boosts trust

In a study, pairs of strangers who watched a funny blooper reel shared more personal information than those who viewed a neutral clip. Humor accelerates the path to trust, creating stronger connections.  Focusing on funny things can reduce stress, anxiety, and make us feel more connected to others. Checkout this episode of the Science of Happiness podcast to  learn how humor can also strengthen relationships, and try the Three Funny Things exercise on your own or with youth.

Humor enhances creative problem-solving

Directing youth in after-school theater, I discovered the link between improvisational humor and skills like empathy and problem-solving. U of M Researcher Barry Kudrowitz demonstrates that improv enhances ideation by relating seemingly unrelated ideas. I use improv games with youth and adults to engage and promote divergent thinking.

A final thought: Psychological safety, authenticity, and sarcasm

Psychological safety fosters open-mindedness, resilience, motivation, and persistence. Feeling safe to make light of mistakes empowers individuals to take on bigger risks. I was the educator who tap danced across the room to get ninth graders’ attention. Not everyone is funny in the same way. Understanding one's natural humor style leads to authentic joy. A "What's My Humor Style" assessment is available at

Finally, an important warning against sarcasm. It can be harmful, especially for young children navigating language and social cues. Nicknames and offhand remarks, innocuous to adults, may cause shame. Teens, still learning these nuances, can be affected, especially if English isn't their primary language. I don’t use sarcasm with youth or adults.

When was the last time you really laughed with youth or your colleagues? 
Who or what makes you laugh the most?
When did you last make someone else laugh?
How many times did you laugh each day last week?

-- Amy Sparks, Extension educator

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  1. Great read. And , yes its true, laughter is medicine.

  2. Thank you Amy for bringing up this topic! Humor is so important! I also love how different cultures explore humor and especially in youth space. Also, as a youth worker I have had to learn how to humor in the right way. I started my career young and fresh out of college. Sometimes humor was used a placeholder for being self-conscious, fear of silence, and wanting to create relationships. However, a wise colleague shared with me exactly what you did here about sarcasm; it's not a good fit for youth work. I am so grateful someone shared insight about my own behaviors that I wasn't aware of. I know I am a better youth worker now because of it and can help coach others to do the same. Thank you again for this conversation.

  3. It can be so easy to get bogged down by programmatic goals - the reminder sharing laughter is KEY to success in so many areas is such great advice!

  4. Attitude is one of the biggest things we can control in our life. Being able to see the humor in things can definitely put one in a more positive mindset! Thank you for sharing.

  5. Amy - I am over in FHW...and I laugh ALL the time. Thanks for your lovely article about humor in the workplace and validating that there is a method to my madness!


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