Laughing all the way to the bank
26 May 2015
"A day without laughter is a day wasted"
Charlie Chaplin/ Nicolas Chamfort
As the latest World Happiness Report is released with the UK in 21st place (we are slightly less happy than in 2013, despite moving up one place in the rankings) there is increased focus on whether happiness can be a benefit metric in a cost-benefit analysis of policy.
Research and discussion about happiness in the workplace continues to develop too and, although not without controversy, it is hard to deny that there is an enduring move towards an acceptance of happiness as a possible HR metric, as illustrated by the increasing focus on wellbeing and engagement metrics for example.
Precisely how, and to what degree, happiness at work contributes to increased organisational performance is not yet clear. However, most commentators believe it does and research shows that it is linked to greater work performance in a variety of ways. New experimental research has suggested a causal link between happiness to productivity, by showing that simple task productivity can be increased by elevating mood state (one facet of happiness).
There are plenty of suggestions on how happiness at work can be increased, ranging from major organisation-wide cultural change to small tweaks to daily routines (for example, using an online mindfulness programme). Measurement of happiness through surveys, apps, and indirect measures such as absence, is a growing industry. Yet laughter, perhaps one of the simplest and most obvious indicators of happiness, has not been much studied in workplace settings.
Laughter at work, and its precursor humour, tends to be seen as something positive, but not necessarily related to productivity. Jokes and a giggle are things we enjoy at the water cooler or on lunch breaks perhaps, serving as a positive distraction from a difficult or boring task in hand, but not as something integral to work activity. Humour and laughter have rarely been examined as something with a direct contribution to work performance.
However, intriguing new research from Lehman-Willenbrock and Allen reported in the BPS Research Digest has found a link between how much humour and laughter there is in a work meeting and ratings of team performance over the short and longer term. The effect was not present for either humour or laughter alone but only when they were part of a humour-then-laughter pattern. The researchers also found that the humour-then-laughter pattern was often followed by more humour, more laughter, and so on throughout the meeting.
Lehman-Willenbrock and Allen used video analysis of meetings to work out how interactions progressed and found that immediately following humour-then-laughter interactions, there was an increase in innovative, pro-social and productive behaviours. They propose that these are the cause of the team’s higher performance, through the mechanism of establishing a dynamic ‘give and take’ interaction pattern.
Laughter is a universal process with a long evolutionary heritage. It is highly emotionally contagious and has a powerful effect on the brain: work by neuroscientists shows that when people hear laughter their brains get ready to laugh and this neurological effect is much larger than when we hear other emotions expressed. We also know it serves a variety of important social functions so perhaps it should not be surprising that it facilitates improvements in our social work performance. Arguably, what is more surprising that it has not already been explored in depth and then actively pursued as an organisational tool for increased customer engagement, innovation, team performance and employee satisfaction.
Whether laughter could turn out to be a useful HR metric in the long run is perhaps a moot point. Nevertheless, it is great news that there is now a fledgling but burgeoning research landscape on humour and laughter, as we could all do with a bit more of their powerful, positive effect in our daily lives.
It’s also delightful that we have some licence to enjoy a joke with our colleagues or a fit of the giggles not as a detractor from, but as a contributor to, our productive endeavours. And as managers and colleagues, if we pass a meeting room and hear howls of laughter, perhaps we can train ourselves not to think that valuable time is being wasted, but that there is some seriously good work going on inside.