The secret power of laughter

By Janet Stone

laughing crowd
After 2020, we could all do with more joy in our lives. We know laughing makes us feel good but are we underestimating the power that humour has to transform our lives by improving our work, health and relationships?

Laughter as a physical process triggers endorphins, your happy hormones, and suppresses cortisol, the stress hormone. It releases oxytocin, which makes us more trusting, and dopamine, which aids memory and information processing. Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation.

A 15-year follow-up study of 53,556 participants by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology looked at the associations between sense of humour and survival in relation to specific diseases. They found that those with a strong sense of humour lived longer than those who scored lower.

Women who scored high on the use of humour had a 48 per cent lower risk of death from all causes, a 73 per cent lower risk of death from heart disease, and an 83per cent lower risk of death from infection. Men had a 74 per cent lower risk of death from infection.

As well as amazing physical effects, laughter has great emotional benefits. Studies have shown cortisol is linked to anxiety and increased risk of depression, so if we can use humour to suppress cortisol it makes us more emotionally resilient in difficult times.

“If you are threatened or stressed and you can decrease that using humour, you reduce the amount of the stress-hormone cortisol being released. If it’s released day after day because you are in a stressful environment, it wears down the immune system so when a microbe comes in, you can’t fight it off,” explains Janet M. Gibson, Professor of Psychology at Grinnell College, Iowa, and author of An Introduction to the Psychology of Humour.

“It also wears down your heart muscles. Humour doesn’t get rid of stress; it softens things. That goes a long way to strengthening health: you have lower blood pressure, you feel calmer, your heart doesn’t have to work as hard as it did and you get better oxygen to your brain.”

In the eye of the beholder

Different people find different things funny. Some prefer one-liners, others prefer slapstick, storytelling or physical humour, such as face pulling. These preferences may change throughout our lifetimes. Some people laugh more often and more freely than others, dependent on factors such as personality type –whether you are an introvert or an extrovert.

“Everyone differs in their experience. Not everyone is an extrovert. It takes some risk to laugh out loud. What if you laughed out loud and you’re not supposed to? That could be embarrassing. People who are shy are not going to laugh freely. They would need a very strong, clear stimulus to know it’s OK to laugh,” says Gibson.

Detecting and understanding humour takes cognitive competence and social intelligence. It activates multiple regions of the brain, strengthening neural connections. Humour usually results from surprise and misdirection coming from the incongruity between what we expect and what happens.

“We expect things to happen a certain way. Humans are very good at predicting what comes next and when that prediction is violated, you can get two responses: surprise and puzzlement, surprise and amusement,” says Gibson. “It goes against expectations, when you’ve solved a problem, by understanding a joke and that creates pleasure.”

The results of various studies show that a decline in cognitive abilities associated with ageing can decrease understanding of humour and the ability to produce it, yet when a joke is understood by older adults they typically show greater appreciation of the joke than younger adults.

Due to the cognitive demands that humour requires, using it more often may help delay the cognitive decline associated with ageing.Also, if your sense of humour changes or diminishes, it could be a sign of disease, such as Alzheimer’s or dementia.

“If you catch yourself not getting something, or if you lose your sense of humour, it can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s. You need those areas of the brain working. Saying things such as ‘I used to love puns, but now I don’t’ can be a sign that something has changed,” says Gibson.

At the heart of humour is usually truth: observations about everyday life with which people can empathise. For example, a comedian talking about tripping over all his wife’s shoes that litter the hallway. Next time you watch your favourite comedian, notice how they refer to things in their personal life, about their relationships, work, their feelings – what makes them happy, sad or irritated that you find funny because you can empathise.

Relationship building

Laughter releases oxytocin, which makes us more trusting. Studies have shown this helps facilitate the development of social bonds by making a person more willing to disclose personal information. This quickens the path to trust in new relationships and makes us feel more satisfied in our relationships over time.

In a 2015 study undertaken at theInstitute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, participants watched either a funny or neutral video clip before engaging in a self-disclosure exercise with a stranger. People who watched the funny clip revealed 30 per cent more personal information than those who watched the neutral one.

“We use laughter as a communication device,” says Gibson.“It tells you I’m listening; it tells you I’m interested in what you’re saying, even with strangers. If someone is talking to you and you laugh at what they are saying, what you are saying is, ‘I like you, and I get it’.”

Sense of humour is frequently a highly desired characteristic for people seeking partners, either for romance or friendship. Women, in particular, seek a partner who can make them laugh. A study of 3,000 married couples across five different countries found that spousal humorousness was associated with marital satisfaction in all cultures.

Another study showed that 92 per cent of couples say humour contributes positively to married life, most commonly to the couples’ feeling of cohesiveness. One place in which humour and laughter is still deemed not to belong by many is at work, with long-held views that cracking jokes in the kitchen is time wasting, or that making jokes at board meetings or in business negotiations is unprofessional and gives the impression you are not someone who takes things seriously.

Extensive research compiled over six years, surveying 1.5 million people in 66 different countries, for the recently published book, Humour, Seriously: Why Humour Is A Superpower At Work And In Life, blows this theory out of the water, hailing use of positive humour, and detailing its numerous benefits, for career progression and business success.

Humour in the workplace

Gallup data analytics in the United States revealed that people laughed significantly more on weekends than on weekdays. Research shows that rates of laughter plunge at the ageof 23, coinciding with the year many people enter the workforce.

Yet, conversely, a survey of more than 700 chief executives by Hodge-Cronin and Associates showed that 98 per cent of CEOs prefer job candidates with a sense of humour and 84 per cent think that people with a sense of humour do better work.

A course for MBA students at the prestigious Stanford Graduate School of Business in the US, called ‘Humour: Serious Business’, is taught by the authors of Humour, Seriously, Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas. It highlights how humour is a proven valuable asset for those wanting to thrive in business.

Students receive the same amount of academic credit for completing the course as they do for the subjects ‘Managerial Accounting’and ‘Financial Trading Strategies’.

The power of humour

As well as encouraging disclosure and building social bonds, humour makes us more resilient by helping to reduce stress, which no doubt would come in handy at work for most.

Aaker and Bagdonas’ extensive research for Humour, Seriously shows humour enhances others’ perceptions of our status and intelligence, which influences behaviour and decision-making, and makes our ideas more memorable. It also promotes creativity through helping us see connections we previously missed, and making us feel psychologically safe enough to share our risky or unconventional ideas.

These are all weighty benefits to ensure productive and happy workers in order to maximise business success. Companies such as Google lead the way for happy workers and a thriving business by creating an office environment focused around freedom and play, based on research links between play, creativity and productivity in order to ‘create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world’.

Humour is deemed, in psychological behavioural terms, as a source of play. So why should it remain a taboo in the business world now its many benefits have been reinforced through multiple research studies? If standing in front of a group telling jokes fills you with dread and the mere thought of dropping a one liner in the boardroom makes you break out in a cold sweat, you might consider implementing humour in your written communications.

Adding personality

Using humour isn’t all about taking to the limelight and telling jokes face to face. Aaker and Bagdonas explain that adding some personality to written communications in order to build social connections is a good starting point.

Work emails don’t have to be dry and littered with jargon; they suggest adding details that humanise you and adds levity. You could try mixing up your signoffs from ‘Kind regards’ to ‘Yours, heavily caffeinated’, or ‘Yours with fingers and toes crossed’ – if you’re asking for a favour.

Add a PS, such as, ‘It’s as hot as Mars in Auckland today’. Add randomness with an out-of-office, such as, ‘I’m out of the office on 22 July to go dress shopping for a wedding I’m attending on Saturday. I’ll reply to your email with vigour when I return.’

Anything that humanises you is opening up the potential for human connection and improving the quality of our professional relationships and the culture of the organisation.

John Cleese, actor, comedian, screenwriter, and producer, famous for the TV series Fawlty Towers, once said: “I’m struck by how laughter connects you with people.“It’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance or sense of social hierarchy when you’re howling with laughter.”


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