I don't know about you, but whenever I'm laughing at a hilarious online video (my newest fave: cat fails!) instead of doing my work, I don't feel as if I've wasted my time. That's partially because it just feels so good to laugh — but it's also because I've heard about the numerous health benefits of laughing, so those cat vids are practically like taking my vitamins.
According to PBS, the benefits of humor are many: Physically it can reduce pain and stress and help with relaxation; cognitively it bolsters creativity, problem-solving ability, and memory; emotionally, humor elevates mood, increases self-esteem, hope, optimism and energy and reduces anxiety; and socially it promotes bonding and altruism, leads to happier partnerships and makes you more attractive.
New research says it can do wonders at work too — and not just by making your coworkers seem more attractive and less grating.
Researchers Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock and Joseph Allen wrote about their findings, which looked at the behavioral patterns of 54 separate real-world working teams from two businesses. Humor and laughter were examined, and each interaction was coded from recordings made at the meetings. Performance ratings were collected immediately after and also later, according to the study, which appeared in the November 2014 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.
Lehmann-Willenbrock and Allen found: "... humor patterns triggered positive socioemotional communication, procedural structure, and new solutions. At the team level, humor patterns (but not humor or laughter alone) positively related to team performance, both immediately and two years later."
The positive aftereffects of humor on team performance included question-asking, proposal of innovative ideas, new people speaking up, and kudos given for jobs well-done or problems solved. In short, when you're thinking about group contexts (like an office meeting), getting to a place where most of the party is in a good mood — because they've shared some positivity — means that better work gets done.
But the researchers found a couple of other interesting things outside this performance boost. First, that two years element later really caught my eye; it's amazing to think that some humorous comments and laughter in a meeting today could lead to better performance even years later, but that looks to be the case.
Also notice that it says, in the excerpt above, that humor patterns are what matters. Humor patterns are those times when a team member tells a joke, another joins in, and then laughter begets more jokes and laughter, riffs on the joke, and it rolls around the table. It's those particular episodes that get the positive results — not just an isolated funny statement. That shared humor is the instigator of the good feelings, but it's the participation of the members of the group that makes it stick.
As Alex Fradera explains on the blog of the British Psychological Society, "The repeated importance of humor in tandem with laughter suggest that it’s not purely elevated mood or a quality of wannabe jokers, but a more dynamic give and take between team members that makes the difference."
If you have one joke-teller or hilarious yarn-spinner in your midst at a meeting, that might be entertaining or that person might be a good ice-breaker, but what they're doing isn't useful in terms of the team performance unless they get everyone else to join in. And as previous research has also shown, that's why one "bad apple" can really do some damage — they can easily ruin the valuable dynamic detailed here.
The teams that were studied worked at German companies and were made up of people who had worked together for longer periods of time, so the results might vary among different cultures and with shorter-lived teams.
Whether you're laughing at cat videos because you work solo, or enjoying a chuckle with your coworkers at a meeting, it's good to remember that all laughter is good (but some is better than others).
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