Funny Lady

As Charlie Chaplin said, “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.” Dr. Sharon Yoder is no stranger to tragedy, but she has convinced people the world over that in societies barraged by unsettling headlines, humor is palliative. 

By Maria Hess

Did you hear the one about the college professor who uses humor as a teaching tool? If not, you haven’t witnessed a class or speech designed by Associate Professor Dr. Sharon Yoder of Wilmington University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

She’s been laughing a long time — and making others laugh in the process. Her WilmU students have been profoundly impacted by her teaching, as have the legions of people who’ve attended her talks at Fortune 500 companies and universities worldwide. The secret to her success is the ability to create a safe and supportive environment where laughter is encouraged, even in dire times.

The medical profession touts humor therapy as a viable way to promote overall wellness by using the natural, physiological process of laughter. In Yoder’s paper, Fun and Humor Are Becoming Serious Business, she reports that information taught with humor strategies can be learned in half the time and retained twice as long. Students who are encouraged to have fun while working are 33 percent more productive than those who aren’t.

We humans have essentially two choices: to be happy or miserable. Choosing the former, Yoder has learned, can increase our chances of experiencing longer, more joyful lives. 

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Dr. Sharon Yoder. Photos by Susan L. Gregg.

Yoder doesn’t think humor is the universal truth. She’d never use it to humiliate or embarrass anyone. But she knows through years of research and teaching that its restorative powers are potent. Like when the comically bad singer at her mother’s funeral got the family through the shattering service. Or when, as a single mother raising five children, laughter saved her sanity.

“I recall she was even laughing when she told me the story of her house burning down,” says Niecy LeBright Roberts, regional chair and assistant professor in WilmU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “She was also laughing about working out with 20-year-olds during a boot camp class when she thought she was really out of shape but instead was having a heart attack.”

Humor has been used in medicine for years — as far back as the 13th century, when surgeons used laughter to distract their patients. Political journalist and famed editor Norman Cousins, who in his book, “Anatomy of an Illness,” claimed to use laughter to cure himself of a rare connective tissue disease. (He marathoned “Candid Camera” episodes, among other things.) Cousins’ success inspired 20th-century studies that proved him right. Researchers evaluated participants before and after humorous events, like comedy videos, and determined that laughter helped reduce pain, decrease stress-related hormones and boost their immune systems. In 2008, a study led by Dr. Lee Berk measured blood levels of two groups, one that had enjoyed “mirthful laughter.” The blood levels in the laughter group decreased for cortisol, epinephrine and dopac — all stress hormones. Berk’s previous study in 2006 revealed that laughter could increase the number of natural killer cells that attack virally infected cells and some types of cancer and tumor cells.

Yoder has known for years that humor helps the mind and body. She earned her Ed.D. in Education, Humor and Creative Leadership from Temple University in 1986, though her idea for her dissertation, Creative Leadership in Education, came unorthodoxly. One day, her then second-grade son, Jamie, was asked to bring a pet to school. He didn’t have one, so he found a dead starfish under a pile of seashells in the basement. He thought it looked dirty and washed it, making the dead creature smell more acutely dead. Unfazed, he packed it up and headed for school.

His teacher wasn’t amused.

“She became very angry,” says Yoder. “She punished him in front of
the class and wouldn’t let him go to recess. He was told never to bring that starfish to school again.”

It was a missed opportunity, Yoder thought.  “The teacher could have used it as a lesson none of the students would have ever forgotten. They all could’ve had a good laugh.”

Jamie put the starfish back in the basement and never said a word to his mother, but he spilled when she found it days later. Yoder realized then that she had the capacity to turn a simple incident into something productive, maybe even humorous. Jamie’s teacher, she thought, could have transformed the dramedy into a learning experience. As it happened, her dissertation topic was due that same day, and her focus became clear: the power of fun and humor in people’s lives.

Yoder utilized the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory tool to measure stress and anxiety levels for three student groups at the moment they were taking a test. The first group was sent to their desks to review for the test, which, Yoder says, “really messed them up and raised their anxiety levels.” The second endured a dull video about the history of a community college, which reduced their levels some, but not appreciably. The third saw a humorous video, which reduced their anxiety and stress levels by a significant percentage.

“We know through studying the brain that when your anxiety and stress is reduced, you can focus and think at a higher level,” says Yoder. “Our research also proved that students got higher scores. Testing is part of life in this country, whether in school or applying for a job, so learning about the brain as it applies to taking tests or making serious decisions is paramount.”

The concept has caught on. Thanks to the global success of Yoder’s company, Make It Happen!, which she founded in the 1980s, she put her five children through college. She has brought chuckles to nursing organizations, the International Women in Insurance Conference, and to clients such as DuPont, ICI, Walgreens, GEICO, Wesley College, Delaware State University, Armstrong Industries, Johns Hopkins Hospital and the U.S. Census Bureau. Yoder also presented her research at the International Education Conference in Vienna, Austria, and within a year of that, was invited by the attorney general of Hawaii to train people in Kauai who were attempting to rescue families affected by hurricanes.

 

“The rescue teams were so depressed,” she says. “They were unable to be effective and had to be given permission to laugh at themselves and at other events in life for their survival.”

 

THE FUNNY IN TEACHING

People often ask Yoder where she gets her material.

“Who are more humorous than our students?” she asks. “I get my funny stories from them. But I think educators tend to forget that students don’t mind it when their teachers are imperfect. They love you for admitting you did something wrong because it shows our human side.”

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Dr. Sharon Yoder. Photos by Susan L. Gregg.

“Sharon is able to laugh at herself, as she does often,” says LeBright Roberts, “and teaches students how they can do the same.”

WilmU student Rita Moseti calls Yoder inspirational. “I have learned how to be a great team player,” she says. “Her theory of trying new things has kept my brain young, focused, happy and stress-free.” In her Public Speaking (ENG 131) class, Moseti says, “Dr. Yoder helped me feel safe to express my feelings.”

Lisa Henderson, who recently returned to WilmU for her BSN, hadn’t taken a college course in 14 years. Another of Yoder’s courses, Building Brain Power (HUM 310), helped her gain self-assurance. “She gave me the confidence I needed to believe I could do this again after all these years,” says Henderson. “Dr. Yoder was a joy to have as an instructor. She incorporated interactive methods and laughter, and she was kind, positive and such an encouraging and motivating person.”

Ronnie Wilckens is a U.S. Marine war veteran who has suffered traumatic brain injuries. He took Yoder’s Building Brain Power class as part of his Organizational Management program, which he’ll complete this fall. “I have had my fair share of remedial training in mental focus, yoga and relaxation techniques, so I was skeptical about the course due to the title,” he says. “Dr. Yoder immediately got my attention. She has a unique ability to connect with everyone in the class, which was very diverse. I found myself looking forward to her class and still utilize her techniques on a daily basis.”

Teaching was Yoder’s destiny. Her father was a school superintendent and her mother was a teacher. “I didn’t have a prayer of doing anything else,” she says. “My parents were noted for their sense of humor and how they used it in the workplace. I saw how they and the teachers had so much fun at work, and that’s when I decided to be a teacher as well. Probably all teachers were having this much fun in their workplaces. Wrong.”

Yoder also has held diverse roles throughout her career, including home economist, nursery school consultant, crisis counselor, newspaper columnist and radio commentator. She’s been recognized as an expert in humor therapy by Delaware Today magazine, Delaware State News and NBC’s “People Are Talking.” She became a full-time program coordinator at WilmU in 2005, though she’s served as an adjunct since 1992.

Despite her numerous awards and experiences, she seems proudest of raising five children on her own, a role that earned her the 2003 Delaware Association of American Mothers’ Mother of the Year award, which recognizes the contributions and commitment to family and community that mothers exhibit on a daily basis.

“I was the first single mother in Delaware to receive the award,” she says. “The year I won, Mitzi Perdue (Frank’s wife) won for Maryland, and she and I were roommates at the national convention.”

Yoder makes it a point to do something fun or funny every day. “It can be a 10-minute telephone call to a friend who makes you laugh, a 30-minute timeout to read more of your mystery, or a day of adventure.”

And speaking of friends, Yoder says to choose wisely. “Make sure they’re ones who contribute to the fun in your life,” she says. “Part of fun and humor in our personal lives includes positive, fun, uplifting friends who like us just the way we are. Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to back away from those others.”

LeBright Roberts is a fun friend. She calls Yoder “a joyful person who’s always up for an adventure, a story and a good time. She looks for the upside in everything. It’s an honor to know her, work with her and call her my friend.” WU