The importance of humour, especially in the workplace, is often undervalued, as a series of studies suggest.

We have robust reasons to develop our sense of humour, no matter how little gifted we might consider ourselves in this area, because humour has less to do with the ability to continuously come up with great jokes and more to do with cultivating joy and being generous with our laughter.

“Humour research is seen as a non-serious topic,” says Rod Martin, pioneer in humour scientific research and clinical psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario. Disregard for humour research has a simple explanation: scientists believe there are many more pressing subjects to be investigated. They wish, in any case, to make sure that their work is respectable and researching humour does not seem to be congruous with serious investigations.

Still, humour is omnipresent, and laughter is one of the first things we do as babies, so any new research on this subject can only help us improve our sense of humour, like studying language led to a better knowledge of language, says Peter McGraw, professor at the University of Colorado and director of The Humour Research Lab.

The studies that have been conducted suggest that we lose out when we dismiss humour, and that this also has an impact on our work performance.

The humour that energizes us

In 2007, a study published by researcher Roy Baumeister showed that humour can be one of the factors that play a role in mitigating or even counteracting the effects of mental exhaustion. A few years later, researchers David Cheng and Lu Wang tested the hypothesis which claims that humour gives us a “mental break” in stressful situations, thus preventing burnouts, but also recharging mental resources. In their study, Cheng and Wang concluded that subjects that watched a funny video spent double the time in trying to solve a boring task, compared to those who watched two videos that weren’t necessarily funny. The traditional perspective on performance focuses on effort and avoiding activities that might distract one from one’s work, such as humour, but this study suggests that humour can be energizing, the authors concluded.

“Research shows that humour is a fabulous tension breaker in the workplace,” says Michael Kerr, author of the book The Humour Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing all the Way to the Bank. Kerr explains the fact that people who can humorously manage conflict tend to go from convergent thinking that allows them to see only one solution, to divergent thinking, that juggles with an array of potential solutions. Humour is also an essential element of creative thinking because it reduces internal criticism and allows the mind to play with ideas and find new angles to look at things.

Several studies show that people with a sense of humour are considered trustworthy and are labelled as nice and intelligent. All these advantages, says Kerr, show that humour is an excellent icebreaker and a facilitator of work relationships (all the more important as relationships are essential for obtaining success).

Studies have shown that leaders with a sense of humour are seen as good motivators, while their employees are 15% more involved in what they are doing, and have bigger chances of solving tasks that require creativity.

Last but not least, humour increases productivity, says Lynn Taylor, an expert on work environments. An atmosphere which contains the proper dose of humour generates relaxation, encourages interaction, and offers the feeling that one is allowed to think outside the box. All these things increase work productivity, so the advantages are reaped both by the employees and the employer.

How to make more room for humour in our lives

As we get older, many of us laugh (and even smile) less, as if seriousness is a garment that suits us better, sociologist Anna Akbari says. She points out that we can practice that sense of humour that we had in our childhood, and thus bring extra joy into our lives.

Humour has to do with positivity in old age and even longevity, as shown in a study conducted by Norwegian researchers. The study was conducted over the course of 15 years and focused on the connection between a sense of humour and mortality, on over 50 000 subjects. The results showed that, in women, high scores of the cognitive component of humour were associated with a 48% lower risk of death from all causes, but also with a 73% and 83% decrease in the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, respectively. Men with a high score on the cognitive component of humour reduced their risk of death from infections by 74%.

The first step in cultivating our sense of humour begins with being aware of the fact that this is a skill that can be developed, says David Fessel, from the University of Michigan. No one says we should turn into clowns or stand-up comedians, but we can absorb the joy that comes from the quality humour of others, brighten other people’s day, observe the nuances in how our introvert or extrovert friends express their humour and, finally, empathize with others.

Most humour occurs spontaneously, Fessel says. He urges us to stop and enjoy the funny things that kids, pets, or the adults around us do. We could even journal about the funny things that happen, because writing down such moments creates a lot of space to savour the joy they bring.

We should introduce humour into our professional arsenal, using it as a persuasive tool, Akbari says. She notices that we are more predisposed to follow and let ourselves be persuaded by people who make us smile and laugh. We can also use humour to create emotional connections. We do not create close relationships only by sharing serious thoughts but also by allowing humour to help us put our masks aside and generate moments of closeness that we can joyfully remember.

We should also be concerned with cultivating humour in children, because, although humour has a genetic component, it is also developed through socialization, says Sven Svebak, neuro-medicine professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Children need an adult model to learn how to humorously cope with challenges, and if this is lacking, they might be less likely to activate their sense of humour as a resource for developing resilience when they grow up, Sveba says.

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Conversational humour: benefits and boundaries

Although the beneficial effects of humour are at least partly known, professor Rod Martin disavows those who draw conclusions before clear scientific evidence is presented, those who are not yet convinced by the idea of humour-based therapies (although there are already some promising studies that require follow-ups). When we talk about people with mental disorders, these must be guided toward therapies focusing on complex mental disorders. Guiding patients towards positive humour styles is welcome as long as it is used as secondary help. On the other hand, interventions that teach people to engage in adaptive humour styles are useful for mentally healthy people, representing a means to increase their welfare.

The professor believes that lab studies that show a decrease in stress induced by watching a funny movie should not send the message that we should spend our time watching comedies to better cope with daily stress. On the one hand, he believes a more realistic approach for manipulating humour in the lab is required. On the other hand, he is not convinced by the authentic benefits of laughter in front of a screen. Spending more time watching comedies or funny videos means increasing your chances of being unhealthy, Martin says. He claims that the emotional and physical benefits come from conversational humour that spontaneously appears in social interactions.

More important than humour itself is the style we use. It can be more difficult to teach people how to become better humour creators than it is to teach them how to use the sense of humour they already have in a positive way, avoiding forms of maladaptation, such as sarcasm or mischievous teasing, the professor says.

We can use a few simple rules to ensure our humour brings joy to the people in our workplace instead of hurting them, says Naomi Bagdonas, lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. We should first examine the truth that a joke is based on. Would the observation remain true and adequate if we were to remove the funny frosting? We should evaluate the distance between us and the person we want to share the humour pill with. Are we close enough to them, or to the problem we are joking about? Are we sure our comment will not reopen wounds, or do we know whether the other person has recently been through troubling events and has overcome them? We should also closely scan the environment, and notice whether other people have the disposition to laugh, if there are cultural differences, status differences, or other elements that would make people feel uncomfortable.

In the end we should not equate humour in general with our own particular humour style. Just because no one is laughing at a remark aimed at making other people feel good does not mean that the world has lost its sense of humour, says Jennifer Aaker, professor at the same Graduate School of Business in Stanford. We need to better understand the diversity of humour styles and use empathy more than anything to understand how we can bring other people joy thorough our humour, Aaker says.

Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.