Creative Leadership Series Part 2: Leading Through Laughter

Posted on January 18, 2017

“At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities” — Jean Houston

Did you know, laughter is an ancient mammalian behaviour, evolved for the purpose of helping us regulate our emotions and make and maintain social bonds? TedTalk speaker Sophie Scott, along with other researchers from MIT & London Business School have studied the power of laughter. Their findings constitute a convincing case for why inspirational leaders should seek to value and nurture laughter in the workplace- consciously incorporating the quality of humour into how teams communicate with one another and allocate their time. Redwood’s ‘the Power of Laughter’ Triangle depicts the link between three key business benefits of laughter.

Image source: Vanessa Sheehan

Research from a range of institutions has shown that laughter improves: Well-being, Learning and Social Capital

Laughter & Well-Being 

  • Laughter relieves stress and boredom- when we laugh we relax, decreasing anxiety.
  • Telling jokes and being able to laugh at ourselves enables us to let things go- to air our thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others in an appropriate, safe way.
  • When we laugh, dopamine floods our system. Dopamine is a chemical produced by our bodies that stimulates feelings of positivity, pleasure seeking and is responsible for reward-driven behaviour.

We are able to laugh and to speak due to the way our ribcages are built. Laughing interrupts the rhythm of breathing, bringing us right into the here and now. Laughing therefore generates a sense of presence- similar to the effect of being brought into the moment through meditation.

These four impacts of laughter set the stage for the next category of laughter business benefits: Laughter & Learning.

Laughter & Learning
Shawn Achor, leading thinker on happiness, promotes the idea that “if we can find a way of becoming positive in the present, then our brains work even more successfully as we’re able to work harder, faster and more intelligently.” Neuroscientists have shown that when dopamine enters our system, the learning centres in our brain are triggered.

With a more active and engaged brain, our analytic precision and productivity increases. In such a state we are prime to adapt quicker and more creatively to our external environment. 

On an emotional level, studies reported by Asher in FastCompany have shown that heightened emotions that humour evokes doesn’t just make it easier for us to experience insights we otherwise wouldn’t have encountered—it also helps us remember them.

Furthermore, from the perspective of self-awareness, when we are being judgemental and critical of ourselves and others, we decrease our capacity to take in new information and to grow as individuals- laughter can transform this heavy, negative energy by shifting us into a mindset that promotes learning and open-heartedness, leading to a more human workplace.

This sets the conditions for the third category of laughter business benefits: Laughter and Social Bonds.

Laughter and Social Bonds
The embodied experience of laughter- a loud release expressed as a red face, tearing eyes, alien sounds from our nose and disrupted breathing causes us to be witnessed and visible- drawn into the attention of those around us. We become vulnerable. And it is this vulnerability brought about through exposure, which opens us up to ourselves and to others, a prerequisite to authentic connection in the workplace.

Laughter, thus cultivates the conditions to feel safe and accepted within a group- this leads to the generation of trust and ultimately improved collaboration.

Furthermore, Sophie Scott makes reference to studies done by Robert Levenson’s lab in California, on married couples. Levenson gives couples stressful conversations to have while he wires them up to a polygraph so he can see them becoming stressed. He’ll say to the husband, “tell me something that your wife does that irritates you.” The instrument reveals the couple both physically becoming more stressed. Levenson found that the couples who manage that feeling of stress with laughter, not only immediately become less stressed, but start physically feeling better: they’re dealing with this unpleasant situation better together. These couples report high levels of satisfaction in their relationship and they stay together for longer.

Inspirational leaders who take these lessons on the benefits of laughter and incorporate them into their business logic, will poise and prime their team to invest in and creatively manage their well-being, learning and social bonds, both on the individual and collective level.

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