Picture someone studying hard. Does a student with a serious face hunched over a thick textbook come to mind?

Thanks to dreary experiences at school and the simple intuition that difficult subjects must be difficult to study, most of us associate learning with scrunched brows and significant stress. But according to science, if you want to master a new subject fast, you'd do a lot better if you traded in that scowl of concentration for a smile.

No matter the age, happy learners are quick learners

The benefits of smiling while you learn start young, behavioral scientist and author Susan Weinschenk explained recently on her blog. She imagines the following scenario in the post, which will be familiar to many parents:

"Let's say you decide to let your 18-month-old daughter play some learning games on your tablet. You have a couple of apps you've downloaded, and you're trying to decide which one to give to her: the one that introduces number and letter concepts with music but is pretty serious? Or the one that makes her laugh with the silly animals that keep popping up and running around the screen?"

Many would assume that the more serious app is the more educational and go for that, but science suggests you should try to maximize giggles instead. Weinschenk cites a study comparing the learning outcomes of two groups of toddlers, one that laughed while they learned, the other learning without cracking a smile. "The children in the group who did a task in a way that made them laugh learned the target actions more than those in the control group who were not laughing during the learning period," she reports.

That's interesting for parents conflicted over what sort of screen time is best for their little ones, but is happier learning more effective learning for grownups as well? Yup, says a pile of research. One study showed that online classes for adults are more effective if they contain jokes and other humorous elements, while work published in College Teaching claims that funny lectures are more effective lectures. Another small study suggested that laughter can enhance memory in adults.

We even remember funny, fake news better than the real, straight-faced kind. "A Pew Research poll showed that viewers of humorous news shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report exhibited higher retention of news facts than those who got their news from newspapers, CNN, Fox News, or network stations," points out teacher Sarah Henderson in Edutopia.

The science of silly learning

Why is cracking up such a good way to make sense of and retain information? "Neuroscience research reveals that humor systematically activates the brain's dopamine reward system," says Henderson, "and cognitive studies show that dopamine is important for both goal-oriented motivation and long-term memory, while educational research indicates that correctly used humor can be an effective intervention to improve retention in students from kindergarten through college." 

So, next time you have to learn something, don't just reach for the flash cards and highlighter pens. Take a minute and try to find a fun way to learn the material (making up crazy little stories to help you recall vocabulary is one effective technique, for instance). Not only will you be a happier student, you'll also probably be a more effective one.