How Funny is This? The Benefits of Laughter in the Workplace
February 6, 2019 ~ Written by: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner
Approx. Read Time: 12 Minutes
“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.” – Mark Twain
“In laughter, there is truth.” – James Joyce
My approach to the topics covered in these articles may seem to be a ‘dog’s breakfast’ or a little ‘off the wall’, but there is actually an explanation. I write about what resonates with my day-in-day-out activities managing Kirchner Group and my 50-year career committed to “earning and returning” (http://www.kirchnerpcg.com/w-b-bud-kirchner-interview/).
I highlight this catch-all context since it helps to ‘explain’ a most unlikely topic – laughter.
Theory of Laughter
“Both in man and his primate relatives, laughter marks the boundary of seriousness.” – Alexander Kozintsev
Laughter is not unique to humans, but rather is a mechanism of other more “primitive” groups. There is no shortage of theories (thanks to the preponderance of psychologists and philosophers) on laughter and its cousin humor, which I will largely ignore out of consideration of time. For example:
- Incongruity theory
- Divinity theory
- Play theory
- Incongruous juxtaposition theory
- Superiority theory
- Benign violation theory
- Philosophical theory
- Mechanical theory
- Release theory
- Relief theory
Surely this suggests there may be more to this topic than first meets the eye?
Still More Theory on Laughter
“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” – Charles Dickens
Let’s focus on the most ‘typical’ (as quoted from: The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life) theories, including references to the champions of each as reported in the same source:
- Superiority (Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and Rene Descartes)
- Mean-spirited, a form of mockery, derision
- The problems with this theory are that it cannot explain why we laugh when we’re tickled or why we don’t laugh
- Relief (Sigmund Freud, Herbert Spencer)
- Laughter is a physiological process
- Causes the brain to summon ‘nervous energy’ (to deal with a perceived threat or negative emotion)
- Unused, the excess energy somehow needs to be dissipated, and convulsive laughter does the trick
- The main problem with this theory is that there’s no such thing as ‘nervous energy’ sloshing around in our brains
- Hormones like epinephrine, and cortisol – don’t need to be dissipated through laughter
- Incongruity (Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer)
- Says we laugh when our expectations are violated
- The main problem with this theory is that it doesn’t explain why incongruity causes us to make sounds or how those sounds are used socially
Hormones and Laughter
“With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh, I should die.” – Abraham Lincoln
Are you left wondering how this can be so complicated? Let’s take a look at the staggering list of hormones involved (according to Gendry):
- ACETYLCHOLINE: Alertness, memory, sexual performance, appetite control, release of growth hormone.
- DOPAMINE: Feelings of bliss and pleasure, euphoric, appetite control, controlled motor movements, feel focused.
- ENDORPHINS: Mood elevating, enhancing, euphoric. The more present, the happier you are! Natural pain killers.
- ENKEPHALINS: Restrict transmission of pain, reduce craving, reduce depression.
- GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid): Found throughout central nervous system, anti-stress, anti-anxiety, anti-panic, anti-pain; Feel calm, maintain control, focus.
- MELATONIN: “Rest and recuperation” and “anti-aging” hormone. Regulates body clock.
- NOREPINEPHRINE: Excitatory, feel happy, alert, motivated. Anti-depressant, appetite control, energy, sexual arousal.
- OXYTOCIN: Stimulated by Dopamine. Promotes sexual arousal, feelings of emotional attachment, desire to cuddle.
- PHENYLETHYLMINE (PEA): Feelings of bliss, involved in feelings of infatuation (high levels found in chocolate).
- SEROTONIN: Promotes and improves sleep, improves self-esteem, relieves depression, diminishes craving, prevents agitated depression and worrying.
This is not a simple list, as the hormones mix and mingle and there are interactions that “exponentially” influence the laughter phenomenon.
Laughter and Business
“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” – Vincent Van Gogh
With all this ‘theory’ behind us, let’s focus on the nitty-gritty: what does laughter have to do with business?
There is no shortage of lists of how laughter can lead to successful business. I have included three of these in the bibliography, but I will summarize it in a few categories that I feel are most relevant.
Let me start with a cautionary note – laughter is undeniably about context – no one wants to come across as the court jester. Clearly, you don’t want your next outburst of laughter to be a career limiting move.
As a starting point, I have mentioned the roles of laughter in a half dozen earlier articles, but if you only need one – I suggest Would you like to leave the kitchen or learn how to deal with the heat?
I would propose the overriding impact of laughter is on the context (environment) of – life and business.
For example, laughter can humanize a group – reducing ‘boundaries’ of many kinds. In other words, creating a more cordial context for people and in this way, decreasing us versus them and other barriers to team building. As an illustration, laughter can de-stress a situation – both proactively and reactively.
- People relax when they know they are ‘resonating’ as illustrated by laughter
- Laughter serves as an unspoken signal that conveys comraderies and self-reflection thus magnifying the value of groups
- Laughter creates self-sustaining environment of tranquility
Personally – if I could rely on only one ‘technique’ to build an environment of rapport etc., it would be laughter since it has been shown to enhance:
- Attention and recall improve
- Puts colleagues at ease
- Milieu for sensitive topics
- Dynamics are more productive when individuals are at ease
- Interpersonal dynamics improve as “the edge” is dulled
- Positive ‘vibrations’ breaks down barriers
At its most fundamental – laughing can be the thought of as a form of non-verbal communication, which I have addressed in several other articles (see Nonverbal: Part One – “It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Show It”, Nonverbal: Part Two – When a Burp is a Thumbs Up: Culturing Your Nonverbal Communication, Nonverbal: Part Three – A Field Guide to Nonverbal Communications, and Nonverbal: Part Four – A Smile is Not Just a Smile).
In fact, I would suggest in certain (sensitive) situations laughter can be more effective than words.
Lest there be any doubt of the power of laughing as a non-verbal communication: infants laugh more when tickled by their mothers than by others.
Some Specific Benefits
- One of the magic’s of laughing is that it is essentially involuntary, so conveys a sincere message
- Common denominator especially cross cultural are created
- An open spontaneous reaction that is generally considered to be involuntary suggests we are not orchestrating our emotions
- Different (read impasse) issues are often reconsidered when it is clear we can laugh at ourselves
- Improves communication since the implied introspection is reassuring
One could, I expect, write a whole article if not a book (others have) on the value of laughter in terms of personal performance. I will limit my comments to the business context per these anecdotes:
- Smith (see bibliography) has cited sense of humor with work ethics in terms of how others rank leaders
- Google has been active in leveraging this phenomenon of “work space” given the obvious link to creativity
- Southwest has, of course, illustrated that happy customers generate more revenues
- Fabio Sala noted in the Harvard Business Review (Laughing All the Way to the Bank) that the more an executive manifested humor (laughing) the higher their bonus!
- In a related aspect:
- Lakshmi Balachandra (“The predictors of who actually gets the money are all about how you present yourself” from What Negotiators Can Learn from Improv Comedy) concluded that characteristics including calmness, passion, eye contact and lack of awkwardness (you know laughing has to be on this list) were better predictors in pitches to venture capitalists than context.
If nothing else – hopefully the preceding illustrates one fundamental issue of these articles – business is about people.
Imagine a tool that is not predicated on the ability to impress or intimidate other people, but still has impacts such as:
- Making friends
- Influencing people
- Facilitating de-stress
- Synthesizing cultures
- Focusing on strength vs. a weakness as in positive psychology
Finally, in closing, I revisit why I would choose a topic such as this:
- I get to promote still another paradox – something so frivolous can have such a profound effect(s).
- It’s funny!
This article was done and, in the pipeline, to post when I started to read The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle. The reason for retrieving the article and creating this addendum is because as I read this book (which I highly recommend), it became clear to me that at least one aspect of the magic that is laughter is the phenomena of creating a “belonging”, which he describes as the essential precondition to cooperation and team performance. For those that will take the time to look at Coyle’s work, they will appreciate why this all makes sense in this fashion. Still one more vote for laughter.
- Daniel Coyle – The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups
- Rob Fazio – Lead With Laughter: How Humor Can Positively Transform A Work Environment
- Sebastien Gendry – 10 Hormones of Happiness
- Nina Shen Rastogi – 5 Leading Theories for Why We Laugh—and the Jokes That Prove Them Wrong
- Fabio Sala – Laughing All the Way to the Bank
- Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson – The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life
- Jacquelyn Smith – 10 Reasons Why Humor Is A Key To Success At Work
- Allen Taylor – 11 Ways a Sense of Humor Can Improve Your Business
- Michael A. Wheeler and Lakshmi Balachandra – What Negotiators Can Learn from Improv Comedy
Relevant Business Brain
About the Author: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner is a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist with more than 50 years of business success. He is not a scientist or an academic but he does have a diversified exposure to neuroscience, psychology and related cognitive sciences. Generally speaking, the ideas he expresses here are business-angled expansions of other people’s ideas, so when possible, he will link to the original reference.