The Gift Of Shared Laughter

Marriage Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

One of life’s most refreshing moments just might be when a couple of friends or co-workers or romantic partners simultaneously break out in laughter. What got them laughing might vary — anything from a standup comedian to a moment in a movie to something they’re witnessing on a street corner.

Without consciously thinking about the moment or analyzing it, both people probably just enjoy the feel-good moment. Even more, both probably also feel a more positive connection to the other person.

On the flip side, if one person laughs and the other does not, there can be an awkward silence. What’s going on here? If the two have a history of such moments, one or both of them probably just shrug it off — He has a strange sense of humor, she might kindly say.

Our intuitive interpretations of either behavior — seeing the humor in a situation the same way, or not — may actually contain a lot more insight than we are aware of. Writing for Greater Good Magazine, Jill Suttie introduces her discussion of laughter by citing a new study from researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “Laughter isn’t always positive for relationships,” she says. “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.”

The researchers conducted fairly elaborate controlled testing in both online and in-person situations. They balanced that testing with surveys in which people were asked about recent interactions with friends. The results were similar. “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,” writes Suttie. “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.”

The implications of this insight have many practical effects in the real world. Aside from confirming that we are probably naturally closer to people who share our sense of humor, it offers us a guide for enhancing our relationships in a positive, healthy way. Looking for or even creating ways to share a laugh can help deepen friends’ or partners’ feelings. Again citing research findings from UNC, Suttie says, it shows “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.”

For friends or co-workers, sharing a laugh about a sport they love or about the nature of their work is a great way to bond and build camaraderie. For romantic partners, sharing a laugh can be a wonderful way to open the door to increased intimacy. That’s especially valuable because emotional intimacy is a necessary precursor to healthy physical intimacy — which, most people would agree, is one of life’s most enjoyable moments.