Victor Borge once wrote, “Laughter is the closest distance between two people.” Many of us would probably agree that laughter brings us closer to others, whether we’re joking with our spouse or laughing with an audience at a comedy club.
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Yet laughter isn’t always positive for relationships. Think of your friend laughing at your embarrassing fashion faux pas, or a boyfriend laughing at a comedian you find offensive. This kind of unshared laughter can have the opposite effect.
Now, a new study explores when laughter works as a social glue—and when it doesn’t. While all genuine laughter may help us to feel good, shared laughter may communicate to others that we have a similar worldview, which strengthens our relationships.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, devised a way to produce shared laughter in the lab, to measure experimentally how it might impact a relationship with a stranger.
Participants watched a funny, not-so-funny, or not-funny-at-all video while supposedly video-chatting with another same-sex participant. Unbeknownst to them, the video chat displayed a pre-recorded clip of someone laughing the same amount for each of the two funny videos, but only smiling occasionally during the unfunny video. This produced more shared laughter in the first scenario, minimal shared laughter in the second, and no shared laughter in the third (but still a positive interaction).
Afterwards, the participants then filled out questionnaires about their positive and negative emotions, their sense of similarity to their video partner, and how much they liked or wanted to get to know their video partner.
Results showed that, across the different videos, the amount of shared laughter had consistent effects on the participants’ sense of similarity to the video partner—and that this, in turn, increased how much participants liked their partner and wanted to affiliate with him or her.
“For people who are laughing together, shared laughter signals that they see the world in the same way, and it momentarily boosts their sense of connection,” says social psychologist Sara Algoe, co-author of the study with Laura Kurtz. “Perceived similarity ends up being an important part of the story of relationships.”
These results align with two other surveys they conducted, where participants recalled and answered questions about a recent interaction they had—this time, with someone close to them. When they reported more shared laughter (compared to unshared laughter), participants said they experienced more positive emotion and less negative emotion during the interaction, saw the person as more similar to them, and were more satisfied with the relationship. This held true even when controlling for other factors that might explain the good feelings, such as the length of the relationship and number of verbal and physical expressions of love.
This finding also jives with Algoe’s prior research, which showed that shared laughter was uniquely linked to people’s overall evaluations of quality, closeness, and social support in their relationships. In other words, it’s sharing a laugh—not just laughter, in general—that benefits relationships the most.
How can we put these findings into practice? Algoe suggests that relationship partners may want to find opportunities to laugh together in order to boost closeness, especially before having difficult or conflict-prone conversations. Likewise, she speculates that shared laughter could be incorporated into staff meetings to make people feel more on the same page and, thereby, become more productive.
Whatever the practical implications, Algoe believes her findings further the research on laughter, showing that social context is important for evaluating its effects.
“Even if laughing on your own might have positive social outcomes, there is a missed opportunity, because laughing at the same time as someone else might be particularly potent—and influential in relationships.”
She also hopes research like hers will encourage others to study the small, everyday behaviours that help people connect better in their relationships. For example, she points to a dissertation study by one of her graduate students in which half of the everyday texts sent between people in close relationships contained shared jokes.
“We take that as a sign that shared laughter is a really important, but overlooked behaviour,” says Algoe. “It may have a lot of potential for helping people grease the wheels of their relationships in everyday life.”