Want to make your company a better place to work? Understanding the benefits of using humor appropriately is the first step, actualizing this knowledge the second. Here are some ways humor can help your organization become a place that the best people can do their best work — and have fun while they’re doing it:
Humor can defuse a bad situation
I seem to get stuck in Chicago airports quite often because most of my flights connect through there, and I have clients there. In the summer, you can count on thunderstorms wreaking havoc. In the winter, snow and ice will jump on the flight-delay bandwagon. At O’Hare, you’ll find American and United gate agents attempting to placate disgruntled passengers, usually with little success. The voices rise, the veins stick out and the tempers flare. At Midway, you’ll find Southwest agents using humor to reduce tension. How does this happen? Southwest makes hiring funny people a priority. In fact, in their pre-employment interviews, they ask applicants to describe a situation in which they used humor on the job, a question that gives interviewers a sense of whether the person would fit in at Southwest. This helps them hire those who will support their culture of mirth.
Laughter can reduce the experience of pain and raise the pain threshold
In 1964, doctors diagnosed Norman Cousins with Ankylosing Spondylitis, a rare disease of the connective tissue, and told him he had only months to live and only a 1-in-500 chance of survival. He didn’t accept the diagnosis. Instead, he sought unconventional means for halting the disease and controlling the pain associated with it. He purchased a movie projector and funny movies, including the Marx Brothers and Candid Camera shows. According to Cousins, laughing allowed him several pain-free hours, and according to him, extended his life 26 years.
Can we prove that laughter extended Cousins’ life? No. My fellow humor researchers have tried to prove that laughter affects the immune system, the body’s ability to resist pain and various other health-related topics; however, the evidence is largely anecdotal. Inflicting pain in a laboratory situation reeks of unethical practices, but some attempts have been made. For example, researchers have asked students to submerge their arms in ice water and keep it there as long as they can. The findings suggest that those who watched humorous videos were able to withstand the discomfort of the ice water longer than the control group. But anyone who has experienced childbirth knows that a cold arm and true pain exist in two separate galaxies. Cousins did leave us the legacy of his personal research and chronicled it in a collection of best-selling books on healing, including his 1980 autobiographical memoir Human Options: An Autobiographical Notebook.
We find some topics universally humorous: misers, bad drivers, absent-minded people, kids, pets, indignities and embarrassments. Each workplace has its unique sources of humor, too. When leaders give people permission to enjoy funny or ridiculous stories and to engage in self-effacing humor, they open the possibilities of making work more fun and building cohesion. Most of us spend more hours with our colleagues than we do with our family members. Doesn’t it make sense for us to discover new ways of building rapport and endearing ourselves to one another? When we feel connected to others through humor, we experience inclusion, affection and control, three of the emotions psychologists tell us are essential to happiness. That equips us to handle change more gracefully, too.
Humor can make others want to pack your parachute
Charles Plumb was a U.S. Navy fighter pilot who was shot down May 19, 1967 and spent six years in the Hanoi Hilton. One day after his repatriation, he and his wife were sitting in a restaurant when a man at a nearby table approached him and said, “You’re Captain Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down!”
When Plumb asked, “How in the world did you know that?” the man replied, “I packed your parachute. Guess it worked!” Plumb replied, “It sure did. If your chute hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here today.” Plumb realized that he didn’t remember this sailor, but he quite literally owed his life to him.
Leaders often don’t recognize those in the organization who pack their parachutes, but they too rely on these loyal employees for support of all kinds. When we can share a laugh or even a mirthful moment with someone upon whom we rely, we communicate our appreciation and commitment to building rapport. We can also mitigate bad situations, even if we can’t always prove how. Humor helps.