The Power of Humour

When I spent time with a four-year-old recently, I noticed that she laughed a lot – an awful lot – compared with me, at least. It was later, when I looked into writing this piece, that I discovered children of her age laugh 300 times a day on average. Unfortunately, the mirth wears off and, by the age of 45, the laughter rate is down to 300 times every ten weeks.  As we age, we become more serious, which may sound appropriately adult, but the downside of being serious is the danger of losing sight of joyousness, so we shouldn’t take it too far. Research shows that laughter triggers the ‘happy hormones’ and suppresses the stress hormone, cortisol: blood flow increases, and muscles relax.  A Norwegian study found that people with a strong sense of humour lived longer than those that scored lower. It’s something for every adult to bear in mind in their day-to-day negotiations with life.

One way I reflect on the success of a meeting or workshop is to recall how many smiles and laughs I observed. Work is a serious business, of course, but by learning to see and appreciate the funny side of things, we can seriously improve our well-being and resilience. Humour helps us remain calm and more able to make good decisions. And, as we all know, a joke can rescue a bleak situation. Over a hundred years ago, Mark Twain wrote: “[Humanity] has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug—push it a little—weaken it a little, century by century, but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”

In a more scientific assessment of the power of humour, Humour Seriously: Why Humour is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life, Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas  of Stanford University deliver the  key message that humour is an underappreciated and underused superpower, as well as a powerful medicine to strengthen our mental health. Their list of the benefits of humour includes improvements in confidence, competence, relationships, creativity and resilience – especially when times are hard.  And, importantly, they suggest that humour is a choice we can make – “it’s about being more generous with your laughter and finding delightful moments in the day…. when you don’t take yourself too seriously, you laugh effortlessly.  And that is when joy flows”.

In the light of all this, I suggest we plan to incorporate joy into every one of our days. How to go about it? Make a start by trying to keep note of how often you laugh each day and ask yourself this: how generous are you with your laughter? According to Dr. Seuss, it’s not as difficult as you might think: “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.” We just need to look for the funny side. And if that doesn’t work, try spending time with four-year-olds.