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Stanford educators and business coaches tell you how to use humour to your advantage

A new book 'Humour, Seriously' by Stanford's Dr Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas shows you how to build levity into your life and work.

February 13, 2021 / 07:51 AM IST

A recent survey of 700 CEOs showed that 98 per cent prefer job candidates with a sense of humour and 84 per cent think that funny employees do better work. Further, research shows that humour makes us more competent and confident, strengthens relationships and boosts resilience during difficult times.

A new book that helps one harness the power of humour in our daily life, Humour, Seriously: Why Humour Is a Superpower at Work And In Life (Penguin Random House) offers advice from world-class comedians and stories from top leaders, explaining how we can utilise the behaviourial science of humour to our advantage.

The book’s authors Dr Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas teach some of the world’s best business minds at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business how to build levity into their organizations.

Dr Jennifer Aaker is a behavioural psychologist, author and the General Atlantic Professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Her research focuses on the psychology of time and money and the choices driving lasting happiness.

Naomi Bagdonas is a Stanford lecturer, a strategy and media consultant and a professionally trained comedian. Naomi has designed and facilitated innovation workshops and strategy offsites for the boards and leadership teams of Fortune 100 companies. She performs improv and sketch comedy in Los Angeles.

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The authors’ research has found some interesting statistics, such as the fact that an average four-year-old laughs as many as three hundred times per day. In comparison, the average 40-year-old laughs three hundred times every two and a half months! It simply goes to show that as we grow up, we suddenly start taking ourselves and our lives too seriously. A human connection is what is needed in our relationships, and humour provides just that.

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Through the course of this feel-good book, the authors essentially explain that a sense of humour makes one human. It’s like a muscle that atrophies without regular use. Most people probably know that when we laugh, our brains release various hormones that make us feel happier. By working humour in our daily interactions, we can pass on this ‘high’ to others too.

Further, using humour in the face of failure can help us manage our emotions, enabling us to learn from our mistakes and bouncing back quickly. Moreover, in a 15-year longitudinal study of more than 50,000 people, Norwegian researchers found that both men and women with a strong sense of humour lived longer—in spite of illness and infection.

Summing up the several benefits of humour, the authors write, “It fosters meaningful connections, unlocks creativity, makes tense situations less stressful and helps us survive and thrive through life’s ups and downs.”

Moreover, its potential to transform our work and life is vastly underleveraged in most workplaces today. Humour can help navigate tough, pressure-cooker moments such as difficult or uncomfortable conversations. This is especially true for leaders who, through humour, can become more authentic, approachable while breaking down barriers with employees. This has shown to improve team performance as well.

In this respect, the authors quote another study by researcher Wayne Decker, which found that managers with a sense of humour were rated by subordinates as 23 percent more pleasant to work with and 17 percent friendlier. No surprise that this is true for classrooms too. A study by researcher Avner Ziv showed that students who were taught class material with humour retained most of the learnings, scoring 11 percent higher in their exams.

“Humour encourages a kind of mental gymnastics that reveals connections, patterns and interpretations we’d previously missed. It widens our perspective, makes us feel psychologically safe and creates fertile ground for creativity to thrive,” they write.

Along the way, the authors bust several myths that people hold about humour, such as the fact that it is an innate ability, and not a skill that one can learn. However, by adopting a growth mindset, we can strengthen our humour through training and use.

They also highlight various analogies and examples that comedians habitually use in their shows, to make relevant observations about the art of humour as well as tips for creating spontaneous humour. Describing the four different humour styles (the stand-up, the sweetheart, the magnet and the sniper), they also elaborate how we can adapt our humour style based on the context at hand.

On how to develop and cultivate a sense of humour, the authors say that it comes from simply noticing the oddities and absurdities in the world around us, and identifying them in an unexpected manner.

All humour contains an element of surprise or misdirection. Shared truths create the foundation for humour. To find the funny, one needs to just mine their own life for truth about themselves and others around them. This is probably the reason why emotions are often entry points for humour.

They advise us to look for contrast, contradiction and juxtaposition—differences between how you behave vis-a-vis others. The book reminds you of little things that you probably know deep down inside—but need to be reminded of every now and then—such as the fact that it’s never too late to have a good laugh.

First published in eShe magazine
Neha Kirpal
first published: Feb 13, 2021 07:51 am

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