When our lives feel heavy and serious—especially these days—it can be difficult to find moments of joy and levity, let alone prioritize them.
But what if someone told you that making time for those lighter moments could actually add years to your life? (We’re not joking!)
In fact, researchers Dr. Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas say humor is no laughing matter—it can help build bonds, defuse tension, boost innovation, and bolster resilience. The Stanford Graduate School of Business professors are the authors of the new best-selling book “Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life (and How Anyone Can Harness It. Even You.)”
The good news, they say, is we don’t all need to be stand-up comics in order to reap the benefits of humor (there are lots of humor styles… take their quiz HERE to find out yours). We recently spoke to the authors about the beneficial effects of humor both in our professional and personal lives.
Tell us what you learned about humor and how it can actually contribute to our well-being?
JENNIFER: From a very basic mental health and physical health perspective, humor is game-changing. People may know this intuitively, but if you really dig into the science, it’s really striking how significant it is. First of all, this is not about being funny, but just simply having a sense of humor is linked to longevity and actually being more resistant to severe disease. There was one study run in Norway over the course of 15 years that asked people, “Do you have a sense of humor?” And when people said yes—and again, it doesn’t have to be a good sense of humor, just a sense of humor—they, on average, lived eight years longer and they were 30 percent more resistant to severe disease.
Now, that’s a correlational study. But there’s also studies that show what happens from a neurochemical perspective when people laugh together or when they value humor. So, for example, when we laugh together, our brains release a cocktail of hormones. They release endorphins, which gives us something like a runner’s high. We lower our cortisol, so we feel calmer and less stressed, kind of like you feel with meditation. And we release oxytocin, which is often called the trust or love hormone, released during certain kinds of physical touch. So, in essence, as far as our brains concerned, laughter is like exercising, meditating, and having sex all at the same time, but logistically easier.
NAOMI: And we know that when it comes to mental health and well-being our sense of connectedness and our satisfaction in our relationships is really linked to our ability to be resilient through challenging times and to fend off depression and stress and anxiety.
We know that individuals who have laughter in their relationship and who reflect on those moments of laughter tend to be more satisfied in their relationships. So, one study found that couples who are asked to reminisce about moments of shared laughter versus moments that were just positive—after telling those stories of shared laughter, they then report being 23 percent more satisfied in their relationships. And so, in a moment when we’ve never been more physically disconnected, when rates of depression and social isolation are incredibly high, the fact that even just remembering moments of shared laughter can make us feel more satisfied in our relationships is profound.
So, you’re saying that laughing is definitively linked to living a longer life?
JENNIFER: Yes, absolutely. And the reason that’s especially important is because we also have data that suggests that the time frame in which we as humans globally stop smiling and laughing is essentially the 50 years starting when we enter the workforce. This is research by Gallup that was conducted with over 1.4 million people in 166 countries, and it asked a very simple question: “did you smile or laugh yesterday?” And the answer is yes, at ages 16, 18 and 20. And all of a sudden it becomes no around age 23-ish—right around the time we enter the workforce. It doesn’t increase again until around age 70.
NAOMI: Jennifer mentioned the “humor cliff” as part of our research. And so, we surveyed people and we asked them: “what holds you back from using humor at work?” When we did, we found four humor myths or misperceptions that people have about humor in the workplace: the Serious Business myth, the Failure myth, the Born with It myth, and the Being Funny myth.
The Serious Business myth is this idea that in order to do really important work, you have to be serious all the time. And over the course of our research, through academic as well as anecdotal evidence, we found that this just isn’t the case. Especially for leaders, humor is a really powerful way to come off as more authentic and more human, which is something that more and more employees are yearning for in their leaders. We know that humor can reduce stress and foster collaboration. It’s not a weakness. In fact, it can be an incredible asset for getting serious work done.
The second is the Failure myth—this idea that people have this deep, paralyzing fear that their humor will fail and then there will be all these negative consequences. And actually, the research shows that we get failure wrong when it comes to humor. We think that failure means not getting a laugh and in fact, failure just means being inappropriate. So, we know that if people attempt humor and it doesn’t get laughs, as long as it’s still deemed appropriate, it bolsters other’s perceptions of our confidence and it has no meaningful impact on perceptions of status.
And then third, the Born with It myth. This is the idea that humor is an innate ability— that you’re either funny or you’re not. And in fact, we know that it’s a learned skill. There are skills and behaviors that people can start adopting and also mindset changes that we can develop so that we have more humor in our lives.
And then lastly, is the Being Funny myth, which is the idea that in order to benefit from humor and levity in the workplace, you have to be cracking jokes. And what we know is that even if you’re not comfortable being funny yourself, as long as you signal you have a sense of humor, that’s enough.
What about when humor feels out of place? How do you maintain humor in the face of hardship?
NAOMI: Part of this is recognizing that humor is really, really important in our lives. A recent study conducted by hospice workers revealed surprising consistency about what people wish for, these regrets of the dying, and the five themes that emerged were boldness, authenticity, presence, joy and love. Now, the big secret that people don’t recognize is that humor mitigates all five of these regrets. Michael Lewis, who wrote the afterword of our book, leaves us with this last phrase: “Where there is humor, love isn’t far behind.”
How can we prioritize humor in our lives every day?
NAOMI: This sounds silly, but there’s a really easy technique that people can do, which is every day for seven days, write down the three most funny or joyful things that happened that day.
On day one, it might be really hard. On day two, it gets a little bit easier. But we know that by day seven, people will notice more joy in their lives, and this is based on the priming effect and psychology, which eventually shows that our brains are hard wired to find what we set out to look for.
If we are looking for little moments of joy, then we’ll actually be more inclined to create them. We’ll write little lighthearted notes to our partner or we’ll start a meeting with a smile or we’ll have a lighthearted sign-off rather than “best.” And these little beds that we make in our lives are small, incremental ways that we can start having more humor.
Want to learn how to put humor to work for you? Jennifer and Naomi have created a virtual coaching experience that helps you identify your humor style and develop it into a super power. Enter SUNDAYPAPER to receive 50% when you register HERE.
This interview was featured in the February 21, 2021 edition of The Sunday Paper and has been edited and condensed for clarity. The Sunday Paper publishes News and Views that Rise Above the Noise and Inspire Hearts and Minds. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.