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By: Abhimanyu A Posted: Category: Blog

The Curious Case of Serious Humour: Why Humour at Workplace is Important

“Why so serious?” asks an iconic villain, right in the middle of several intense settings in a Hollywood movie that came out not so long ago. “Let’s put a smile on that face,” he adds, and carries on with his villainy with gusto! You remember, right?

A villain – an epitome of serious, dark affairs, is inadvertently highlighting the need for lightheartedness in the midst of a raging conversation. Yes, an idea that may seem out of context, yet so relevant.
We often take things too seriously, in fact we tend to take everything seriously, don’t we? Of all those things, one stands out – work! Work forms a significant part of most of our lives. Be it an intern at a start-up or the vice president of a corporate conglomerate, we are expected to be seriously serious about work.

The seriousness we attach to our professional lives unknowingly ends up being a bane as much as a boon, and the reason why many of us have to cope with stress, or more specifically, work-related stress. This burnout is often a by-product of us undermining the importance of a crucial element in our work life – humour.

Even though humans have an inherent affinity towards humour, we often tend to neglect the impact of humour at our workplace. We do not realise how humour can potentially help individuals, teams and even organisations to define an emotionally and psychologically balanced work environment. Research has validated how laughter has the ability to release endorphins in our brain. Endorphins are chemicals, which have the ability to diminish the perception of pain or stress, in other words, the human body’s in-house “feel good pill”.

A study conducted in 2017 by Finnish and British researchers of University of Turku highlighted how social laughter resulted in positive feelings and a significantly improved release of endorphins. The results of the study point in the direction of endorphin release induced by social laughter, being an important pathway that supports formation, reinforcement, and maintenance of social bonds between humans. This social bond inevitably forms the foundation of a positive work environment leading to an improved work culture and increased productivity.

As aptly pointed out by Eric Tsytsylin in a video published by Stanford Graduate School of Business, we are “in the midst of a laughter drought”. He adds that children on an average laugh 400 times a day whereas adults above 35 years of age tend to do it just about 15 times a day. Data from various researches also suggest that people laugh significantly less on weekdays than on weekends. Somewhere between growing up, growing old and chasing our dreams, we seem to have forgotten to just laugh!

Is increased workplace stress a result of decreased workplace humour or is it the other way around? A publication by Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute suggests that the brains of depression sufferers tend to show decreased activity in the regions that are engaged while processing something humorous. In certain studies, patients being treated for depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders, associated laughter less with humour and more with communicating emotions. Contagious laughter was often identified as a mutual validation of emotions within a group and thereby supporting the notion that mutual empathy is also a shared experience.

Humour however, isn’t as easy as we think it is. Just as we say – to each his own, humour translates into different meanings for different individuals. The thin red line that separates a good joke from an offensive, incongruous passé must be something that one treads carefully. Misplaced humour at the workplace can easily transform into a disaster if delivered distastefully, be it intentional or unintentional.

The “how” of workplace humour can therefore be a tricky thing to pull off. While team members tend to admire and derive more motivation from leaders with a sense of humour, they may tend to have less respect for leaders who “try” to be funny. Humour isn’t only about laughing at a joke. It is about being authentic and genuine in your reactions to a situation. It is also about your ability to laugh at your own mistakes and take it in its stride. A disarming self-deprecating laugh at your own folly goes a long way, even more than an apology. Remember, a team that laughs together, grows together!

It’s only fair to assume that practice makes perfect and it takes practice to master humour at the workplace. But remember, we cannot practice soccer on an ice skating rink wearing sneakers. Know your strengths, know your people, know your surroundings and then, strike!

Next time you are at work, ask your colleagues, “Why so serious? Let’s put a smile on that face!” But, please don’t carve up their face with a knife like our villain. (Okay! Bad joke!).

Mannin et al (2017, June).Social Laughter Triggers Endogenous Opioid Release in Humans. The Journal of Neuroscience.
Tsytsylin, Eric (2013, May). Laughter: Serious Business. Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute (2010). On The Brain Vol.16 No.2.

Abhimanyu works with the Human Resources & Operations team at Madhi. He believes that humans are the most valuable resources in any organisation and strives to drive this philosophy as part of his work.