All joking aside…

humor at work


No! Don’t put the joking aside! Humor has its place at work. In fact, it needs a bigger spot at the table. Work and fun aren’t opposites and can cohabitate quite happily. And tickling the old funny bone has the potential to ignite creativity, reduce stress, and strengthen coworker bonds.

What’s makes something funny? A core element of humor is surprise. Juxtaposing the expected and unexpected, humor forces us to break frames and shift perspective. It takes advantage of the mental shortcuts and heuristics we use and reminds us that there is another way to look at things. Humor sometimes pairs incongruous things, or forces us to acknowledge unconscious biases and assumptions. It’s is a creative process, and it can stimulate creative thinking because it breaks the “locks” that keep us chained to the same mental grooves.

Why does it feel so good to laugh? In some ways the effects of laughing are like a good workout – it increases your pulse and respiration rate, which sends more oxygen to your brain and other tissues. But it has longer-lasting physical effects as well, by increasing infection-fighting antibodies and levels of immune cells. Plus, it decreases blood pressure and levels of stress hormones and increases endorphins. Not only that, it can actually raise your pain threshold. Laughing helps us deal with stress both physiologically and psychologically.

What else helps us deal with stress? Social relationships. It just so happens that sharing a laugh is also a great way to connect with other humans and strengthen existing bonds. When we laugh socially, the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin is released, which promotes bonding and also reduces the harmful effects of stress. Despite the professional carapaces we opt to don in the office, we actually share a lot of emotions at work. Unfortunately, not all of them are positive. We get stressed, angry, worried – and sharing a bit of humor with a colleague helps nudge out the negativity and replace it with positive emotion. And pleasure shared multiplies. Used adroitly, humor can also defuse conflict.

Of course there’s a disclaimer. We’ve all worked with people who didn’t know when to quit, didn’t appreciate their audience, or just didn’t care if the humor they found appealing horrified and offended others. Telling off-color jokes, or joking at the wrong time won’t elicit laughter from others, but derision. It can harm reputations, disrupt group functioning, and even create an unpleasant work environment. It’s not exactly a fine tightrope you have to walk though – you just need to make sure your jokes are “office ready” and be willing to adapt your approach if people seem unamused or uncomfortable.

So while you’re sharing that oxytocin-pumping laugh, have no fear. You aren’t off-task: you’re enhancing social cohesion, improving memory, increasing productivity and creativity, and decreasing both the physical and psychological effects of stress. It’s so good, if you could bottle a laugh, some pharmaceutical CEO would probably increase the cost 5500% overnight!

“I always arrive late at the office, but I make up for it by leaving early.”  –Charles Lamb

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” –Douglas Adams   

“I like to call in sick to work at places where I’ve never held a job. Then when the manager tells me I don’t work there, I tell them I’d like to. But not today, as I’m sick.” –Jarod Kintz  


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