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Laugh Harder, Do Better

by Ross Smith on January 24, 2011
ross-smith's picture

Laugh Harder, Do Better

In the fourth century BC, Plato suggested that "what is serious should be treated seriously, and what is not serious should not.... Every man and woman should spend life in this way, playing (paivzonta) the most beautiful games (paidiavi)" (803c).ii

Meanwhile, Merriam Webster defines laughter as "cause of merriment"--while a laugher is defined as something (as a game) that is easily won or handled.

As we continue to learn in the context of the Take the Work out of Work moonshot, what goes for play, goes for work. Is it possible that laughter is a serious success metric for a healthy, creative, and innovative organization?

If you are laughing, it could be because you're succeeding--it might also be why you're succeeding.

There's a lot of consensus on this point on the MIX. In his hack The Good Humor company, Salvatore Moccia suggests that happy people:

  • Work better with others
  • Are more creative
  • Fix problems instead of complaining about them
  • Have more energy
  • Are more optimistic
  • Are way more motivated
  • Get sick less often
  • Learn faster
  • Worry less about making mistakes - and consequently make fewer mistakes
  • Make better decisions

The Respectful Workplace blog tells us that laughter can:

  • Reduce tension
  • Lower resistance to change
  • Build team spirit
  • Foster transparency
  • Neutralize negativity
  • Stimulate creativity
  • Raise morale

Paul Herr, in his hack A User Guide for Human Beings talks about the dangers of the "default solution to employee motivation practiced by corporations everywhere [which] consists of a simplistic combination of money-and-fear: 1) do it because I pay you, and 2) if you don't do it you are fired. This simplistic, Neanderthal-approach to motivation has created a dysfunctional workplace where only 30% of employees care about their work. Gallup's economists estimate that this failure-to-engage translates into $300 billion yearly in lost productivity and over $1 trillion if indirect costs are included. This does not include the cost of replacing the millions of disengaged employees who jump ship annually because their emotional needs are not being met."

Of course, the kind of engagement that comes from laughter is not just about retaining people--it's also about unleashing them to do their best. As Tami Garcia, vice president of human resources at Disney says in The Imagineering Workout, "Letting go and laughing is really important. It is like being a kid--losing inhibitions and having no fear of judgments."

Ellen Weber's hack Donna Mah's Neuro Experience of Lived Research on Fun at Work--underscores the neurological impact of fun and play. How "serotonin chemical fuels and sustains fun for added brainpower when people laugh easily, give often, support deeply, and care about other's progress at work."

And if that's not argument enough, all the evidence points to the fact that laughing not only improves your outlook, it increases your health in a variety of ways (and could even reduce health benefit costs).

So, perhaps instead of heading to the gym to satisfy those New Year's resolutions, just listen to a joke or two...

The scientific data is also proving that laughter is an integral part of physical wellness. Dr. William Fry of Stanford University found that laughing 200 times burns off the same amount of calories as 10 minutes on a rowing machine. Another study found that after a bout of laughter, blood pressure drops to a lower, healthier level than before the laughter began. Laughter also oxygenates your blood, thereby increasing energy level, relaxes your muscles and works out all your major internal systems like the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

Furthermore, researchers are discovering that laughter also affects the immune system. According to Dr. Lee Berk of the Loma Linda School of Public Health in California, laughing makes it grow stronger, with the body's T-cells, natural killer cells and antibodies all showing signs of increased activity.

Some say that if you haven't laughed by 9:00 a.m. on any given day, then your day is off to a poor start. Everyone is familiar with the old cliche "Laughter is the best medicine." Real life experiences tell us that this cliche is absolutely correct. According to medical experts we only need 15 chuckles a day keeps the doctor away. As Hawkeye put it in M*A*S*H*, "If we don't go crazy once in a while, we'll all go crazy."

Dr. Michael Titze, a German psychologist is a humor therapist:

  • In the 1950's people used to laugh 18 minutes a day, but today we laugh not more than 6 minutes a day, despite the huge rise in the standard of living
  • Children can laugh up to 300-400 times a day, but when we grow up to be adults this frequency comes down to less than 15 times a day, if at all.

Maybe one of the most worthwhile performance targets you can set this year is to start laughing like a kid. Laughter in the hallway is a proxy for the health of the team. If people are laughing in the hallways, it means that a) they are in the building - a great start - and b) they enjoy being there. New York Times bestselling author Tom Rath ran experiments, researched literature, and analyzed more than 8 million interviews from The Gallup Organization's worldwide database and concludes that people who have a "best friend at work" are seven times as likely to be engaged in their job.

Gallup's Q12 works because it measures engagement instead of cataloging opinions. Thoughts on the break-room vending machine and attitudes toward the sick-leave policy don't affect engagement the way having a best friend at work does.

As John Cleese, from Monty Python fame, once said, "I'm struck by how laughter connects you with people. It's almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance or any sense of social hierarchy when you're just howling with laughter. Laughter is a force for democracy."

When laughter spans layers of management, the level and breadth of communication increases--in both directions--which can lead to better decisions everywhere. Laughter, play and fun don't just make you feel good--they might just help you do better.

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anuj-jindal's picture
It's so funny to see people tensed at small small things at my organisation. People feel so offended by things said or decisions taken by others. It's amazing to see people take short term view of other's actions, forgetting the fact that at the end of the day they are colleagues, and whatever happens, they continue to work under the same roof.
While I have tried a lot to remove work-place tension from the discussions that i have with my team members, I still find it challenging in inducing in them the same spirit of enjoying one's work and sharing laughter and jokes (even when they are silly). I think our organisations have become too formal, too brittle, that they won't stand the human touch to the work environment.
I agree with the post that laughter is a very very relevant metric of a workplace's maturity. And it works best when people loose the fear of the workplace, of the 'goals', of their 'appraisals'. I guess people should feel their work as a natural extension of themselves.
deborah-mills-scofield's picture
When at Bell Labs, we had a great team that laughed a lot - many times to the point of tears - and our team, while creating many patents, actually created a few that were some of the most profitable to AT&T.  We had a blast...why? 
1. laughter made us vulnerable, made us human and built trust and friendship
2. laughter oxygenated our blood and our brains - made us more innovated
to this day, some 20+yrs later, many of us are still friends, still keep in touch.  Same holds true for many of the best teams I've been on....
laughter is indeed the best!