I saw that, once, on a baby bib.
Like the leaders I coach, and the people who aspire to be leaders through their career shifts, I’m also human—and have experienced my own fair share of spit. (Or, to borrow from Sy Sperling, the earnest, no-frills President of The Hair Club for Men, whose 1980s and ‘90s infomercials ran on late-night TV, “I’m not just the President, I’m also a client.”)
For these reasons, I’m interested in what makes things better at life and work. What I’ve discovered, over time, is that there are so many benefits to bringing a lighter touch—levity—to difficult times, tense situations, and conversations, that I personally deploy it as needed, and have my radar tuned to how much exists on, say, a team. The research is irrefutable. Those who laugh together, trust each other more, are more engaged, inspired, and motivated. They’re essentially sharing what Barbara Fredrickson calls positivity resonance, a moment of mutual care, concern, and behavioral and biological synchrony.
As a student of positive psychology and Solutions Focus work (positive psychology’s cousin on steroids, because it’s fast, and shares a defining question: “What went well?”), I know the value of positive emotions to broaden our repertoire of possibilities and readily help clients step into more resourceful states.
Yet, in most workplaces, there’s a real taboo against humor and play. Levity is seen as “less serious,” outwardly, anyway. But what the research actually reveals is that leaders secretly prefer workers with a sense of humor, believe they’re smarter, and think they do better work. We also know that workers prefer bosses with a self-deprecating sense of humor, seeing them as more approachable, trustworthy, and humble (a trait that fans of the VIA Character Strengths Assessment know ranks very low for most leaders).
Yet, highly successful world leaders deploy this high-level tool for negotiating effectively, smoothing the rough edges from tense situations, and rapidly building rapport.
Consider Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s diplomacy, which included a robust collection of brooches she regularly wore to telegraph messages to her rivals, and to buoy her own sanity. When Saddam Hussein compared her to a serpent, she wore a snake pin. When discovering that the Russians had bugged the State Department, she wore an enormous bug pin to a meeting with the Russian foreign minister. He got the message PDQ, which ushered in a more open and productive conversation.
Physiologically, laughter reduces stress—and feels great—because it lowers cortisol levels, boosts both oxytocin (the “love” hormone) and endorphins (the “runner’s high” hormone), which helps us naturally build connections. All those happy hormones also help us remember what we learn more easily. There’s this, too: Laughter reduces loneliness, which is now at epidemic levels. Simply remembering the laughter we’ve shared with someone else helps us feel connected and closer to them.
So, how do we get more of this good stuff at work and play? We learn to be lighter, funnier, more playful. Yep, it can all be learned.
But how? Like any other intervention, we make it a priority. We experiment. Study others who were successful in doing so. We practice. We ask, When does it work? When does it fail? We learn our own style. We use our growth mindset to set aside “I’m not funny” and “I can’t tell jokes.” (Frequently, a surprising number of our thoughts are funny if we observe them. So are our dreams, and so are our random observations.)
While it’s true there are some “rules” of humor, those can easily be gotten in a book or, ahem, a webinar.
I find this all so hopeful. Because this thing that human adults naturally gravitate toward (funny videos are the number one go-to on YouTube) but frequently trivialize is really an equal opportunity superpower. The research is compelling. So is personal experience. I used to be the most serious, intense kid on the block. But over time, I’ve learned to ask, “what would make this situation better?” The answer is frequently: levity.
Join Julia Mines for a WBI/JCC Positive Psychology Hour webinar titled “Why Fun Makes Us Happier—and Why Humor Makes Us More Resilient,” Tuesday, December 6, at 12:00–1:00 pm ET. Register here.
Julia likes to say that she has a checkered past and an eclectic present because she’s traversed multiple careers. This makes her uniquely qualified to be a leadership coach, helping others navigate through their careers into leadership positions. Before she found her “forever career” as a coach, she wore many hats in broadcast media, including writing and producing honest, ethical, sometimes very funny ads for a commercial radio station that Rolling Stone Magazineonce dubbed one of the 10 best commercial stations in the country. She coaches and consults for individuals and organizations and teaches on resilience, well-being, and creating sustainable, human-centered workplaces. Find out more at juliamines.com.
Love this article and I loved interviewing Julia on the Positive Psychology hour and hearing from her how she employs humor in daily life.