Could Laughter be a Performance-Enhancing Drug?

Funny guys in an office


Would you describe your workplace as a fun environment—the kind of organization where they value humor, laughter and a light sense of camaraderie?

Unlike the average four-year-old, who some studies say laughs 300 times a day, the average 40 year old has been found to laugh just four times a day. So I’m going to place a reasonably safe bet that you’re probably feeling your workplace could do with a little more fun.

The good news is there’s a compelling business case to get your bosses to lighten up. In their book The Levity Effect: Why it Pays to Lighten Up, authors Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher found that working in a fun environment is what separates the “great” from “good” when it comes to Fortune’s 100 Best Companies To Work For.

 Why is a fun workplace also a productive workplace? 

Gostick and Christopher also found that when leaders lighten up and create a fun workplace, there’s a significant increase in the level of employee trust, creativity and communication. This in turn leads to lower turnover, higher morale and a stronger bottom line. In short, people tend to remain with, stay committed to, and give more energy to an organization where good times are injected into work.

For example in the nine months following a humor workshop in a US technology company, middle managers increased their productivity by 15 percent and reduced their sick days by half. 

Given that 20 to 30 percent of business performance may be determined by the mood of employee, every manager has reason to increase a sense of fun and happiness in the office. Perhaps this is why The Harvard Business Review reports that executives with a sense of humor climb the corporate ladder more quickly and actually earn more money than their peers.

But how does laughter enhance performance?

Scientists have found that laughter generates increases in positive emotions, which literally broadens the way your brain works. For example, when you’re experiencing positive emotions:

You see more of what’s going on around you. Your field of peripheral vision is expanded so you can take in about 75 percent of what’s happening, versus 15 percent in a neutral or negative mood. 

  • Your brain is flooded dopamine and serotonin, which enables you to make and sustain more neural connections so you can organize new information, think more quickly and creatively, become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving, and see and invent new ways of doing things. 
  • You’re much better attuned to others. Because your brain feels safe, it thinks more in terms of “us” and how to collaborate with people around you, compared to when it’s in survival mode and thinking only about “me.”

No wonder researchers studying business meetings have found that humor and playfulness in workplace gatherings helps people to cooperate, create broader alternatives and progress more rapidly through the decision-making process because their brains are benefiting from renewed energy or new perspectives.

In fact, far from being fleeting, when you accumulate positive emotions over time, it’s like money in the bank for a rainy day. Longitudinal studies find, as your positive emotions accrue, they also build up your psychological, intellectual, social and physical resources helping you to perform better through the lows and highs at work.

So what can you do to inject more laughter into your work?

  • Invest in jolts of joy: Be mindful of what puts a smile on your face – be it good music, kitten videos, a favorite comic strip, an online game or a colleague who cracks you up – and put them to use when you need a reason to laugh.
  • Re-design meetings: Use a funny story, a humorous video or a task-related game or quiz to start meetings with a sizzle and end them with a chuckle.
  • Make work into Play: By breaking goals into small tasks, setting a limited time frame, leveraging your strengths to overcome the obstacles and developing a meaningful way of keeping score, you can use game mechanics to make even the most tedious task more motivating and fun.

While these ideas may sound a little silly, 98 percent of CEOs of major corporations report they’d rather hire a person with a good sense of humor over one who seemed to lack a sense of levity.  

So what are you doing to create more reasons to laugh at work?

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