Monday Mornings with Madison

Want To Make a Business Blossom? Encourage Laughter!

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Estimated Read Time: 5 1/2 min.

Laughing feels good.  From a sly snicker to a hearty chuckle, laughing can be refreshing.  A good ole’ from-the-gut guffaw can wash away worries.  A head-turning belly laugh can clear away mental cobwebs.  And a tear-emitting, sidesplitting, torso-shaking laugh can flood the body with a tidal wave of endorphins.  Laughter is good for the mind, body and soul.   In fact, Lord Byron said, “Always laugh when you can.  It is cheap medicine.”

It turns out laughter is also really good for business.  This has actually has been scientifically proven.  Researchers at Wharton, MIT, and London Business School have studied the effects of laughter in business and found that it produces a plethora of benefits for employers and employees alike.  Laughter is like rocket fuel for employees.  It helps staff relieve stress, stave off boredom, boost engagement, increase an individual feeling of well-being, collaborate more, be more creative, and increase analytic precision and productivity.  What more could a business titan want? Considering this laundry list of practically everything a leader, manager or HR department could hope to achieve, it appears that laughter is the perfect prescription to help a business blossom!

So Just How Much Do People Laugh?

If laughter is so good for people and for business, it’s important to understand just how often people laugh in general and at work.  The answer is that it depends on a number of variables.  Here is what is known about laughter.

1.   Laughter is a social behavior.

There’s lots of evidence that laughter occurs much more often when people are engaged in social interactions than when they are alone.  One study by Robert Provine at the University of Maryland in 1989 found that people were 30 times more likely to laugh when they were with others than alone.   That makes sense since laughter is a social behavior — a form of nonverbal communication.  However, observing people in social settings to see how often they laugh likely overestimates the frequency of laughter because folks don’t engage in social interactions all day every day; only a portion of the day.

As an aside, in another study, the average frequency of laughter did not differ in conversations with friends versus those with strangers.  So laughter doesn’t just happen with friends and colleagues.  And people do not need to know someone or know them well in order to be able to share a laugh.  That’s good for companies or departments where there is high turnover or growth.

2.  People may not realize how often they laugh.

In a study by Nicholas Kuiper and Rod A. Martin at the University of Western Ontario, adult participants were asked to record each time they laughed over the course of three days.  On average, adults reported laughing about 17 times per day, with a range of 0 to over 80 laughs (Martin & Kuiper, 1999).  No differences were found between men and women in their frequency of laughter overall. But, the method of self-reporting used likely underestimated the number of times adults actually laughed.  By having to keep a log, people may not have recorded all instances of laughter and may not have even noticed some of the times they laughed.  Also, just making people aware of how often they laugh is likely to influence the behavior, depending on whether laughter was viewed as a good thing.

3.  There are different definitions for what constitutes a “bout of laughter.”

In a study in 2004, Julia Vettin and Dietmar Todt at the Free University of Berlin tape recorded a total of 48 hours of conversations among numerous pairs of friends and strangers in natural settings where they didn’t know they were being watched.  They found that people had an average of 5.8 bouts of laughter within a 10-minute period of conversation, with a range of 0 to 15 laughs per 10-minute period.  That equaled about 35 bouts of laughter per hour.  That’s way more laughter than what other studies had found.  The reason, perhaps, is that a bout of laughter was defined as the laughter occurring during a single exhalation.  Each time a person inhaled and laughed again, it counted as another bout.  So something very funny could produce multiple successive bouts of laughter, therefore skewing a count of how many times a day a person laughs.

4.  Laughter is frowned upon at work.

A Gallup Poll showed that people laugh a lot more on weekends than weekdays, indicating that most workplaces are humor-averse.  The truth is that most businesses and workplaces are serious, intense, high-stress environments where laughter is viewed as a distraction from real work.  Whether it is a factory, showroom, retail store, construction site, board room or office complex, workplaces are generally places where people feel they must check their funny bones at the door like coats.  Serious is equated with productivity and effort while comedy, jokes and laughter are synonymous with wasting time and being unfocused.  Most companies are humor wastelands… places where laughter evaporates like a mid-day mist in the desert.

5.  People laugh less as they get older.

Stanford MBA student Eric Tsytsylin published a video presentation in which he said “Working adults are in the midst of a laughter drought.  Babies laugh, on average, 400 times a day; people over 35, only 15.” Data from the same university confirms that, as people get older, they stop smiling and laughing as frequently.  Jennifer Aaker, Stanford Graduate School of Business professor who co-teaches a course on the subject of laughter with Naomi Bagdonas, indicates that people “fall off a humor cliff — both in laugh frequency and self-perceptions of funniness — around the time they enter the workforce”.  Apparently, it goes downhill from there.

Increasing Laughter at Work

These facts, combined, may account for why work is such a somber endeavor.  Laughter, smiling and fun are the be-all and end-all for business bounty, but most workplaces are serious and intense places.  So does that mean all workplaces have to be humorless?   The simple answer is no, it doesn’t have to be.  But allowing, inviting and even infusing humor into a business setting can be a challenge.  In addition to people not feeling like it is okay to laugh at work, humor is also highly subjective, and can go terribly wrong if not handled properly.  Humor is related to culture and context, which varies from place to place and person to person.  So what is funny to one person may not be humorous to another.  And many forms of humor are just not appropriate for a work setting.  Given all that, how does an employer increase and encourage laughter at work?

When handled with underlying sensitivity, it’s okay to be embrace humor.  Here are some ways to infuse laughter at work.

  1. Create funny names for teams and groups working on projects.
  2. Self-deprecating stories shared between peers or a boss poking fun at him/herself with direct reports is good.  People appreciate when someone can laugh at him/herself a bit
  3. Tell a funny story about something that happened outside work.  Sharing funny things that children did or said is a great way to connect with colleagues.
  4. Light teasing among longtime colleagues is also fine, as long as it is well-intentioned.
  5. It’s okay to poke fun at something that the group is concerned about, such as a looming deadline or a shortage of parking, because laughter can defuse the situation.
  6. Do like Southwest Airlines does, and hire not only for talent but also for personality.  Hiring funny people is the easiest way to infuse humor in a workplace.
  7. Create opportunities for people to laugh by providing projects and spaces that encourage collaboration.  Laughter is a social behavior more likely to happen during interaction.
  8. Plan events for staff to get together and have fun outside work.
  9. Have a weekly lunch-room contest to see who brings in the funniest meme, email, picture or sign they’ve seen.


    Quote of the Week

    “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” Mark Twain


    © 2019, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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