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Humor At Work

it's just a job

Although the success of a business is no laughing matter, infusing humor into an office may be just what is needed to succeed. Chris Roberts, assistant professor of management at the University of Missouri, is an expert on the subject of humor at work. His studies, published in Research in Personnel and Human Resource Management, state that offices that promote a healthy sense of humor see enormous benefits. He goes as far as to recommend that employers look for a sense of humor when interviewing job candidates, citing a correlation between humor and intelligence.

Shared humor and laughter creates bonds between employees. Wisconsin professor Stu Robertshaw, known as Dr. Humor, holds seminars on the subject of humor at work. He cites a study that shows that introducing humor into an office environment decreased turnover by more than 20 percent. Employees who have fun at work are harder to woo away to new jobs. Robertshaw also says that humor filled offices see a 30 percent decrease in the "Friday Flu" or early-weekend absenteeism.

Believe it or not, humor might even make an office healthier. There are physiological benefits associated with humor and laughter. Both have been shown to produce almost immediate positive changes in our bodies. A good laugh can do everything from lower blood pressure to produce endorphins. In today's stressful business environments this simple stress reducer might be a boss's best friend. Problems can arise when humor is used to mask insults or when jokes are made at another's expense. But even if an insult is hiding in humor, the problem is not the humor; the problem is the employee throwing the less-than-funny jabs.

So with all this joking around is there any work getting done? The answer is yes. Roberts' studies have also shown that employee productivity increases in environments infused with humor. So when it comes to your team, be the one who gets the last laugh. Keep your employees smiling and your company may just laugh all the way to the bank.

Laughter is the biological reaction of humans to moments or occasions of humor: an outward expression of amusement. Laughter is subcategorised into various groupings depending upon the extent and pitch of the laughter: giggles, clicks (which can be almost silent), chortles, chuckles, hoots, cackles, sniggers and guffaws are all types of laughter. Smiling may be considered a mild silent form of laughter. Some studies indicate that laughter differs depending upon the gender of the laughing person: women tend to laugh in a more "sing-song" way, while men more often grunt or snort. Babies start to laugh at about 4 months of age. Philosopher John Morreall theorises that human laughter may have its biological origins as a kind of shared expression of relief at the passing of danger. The relaxation we feel after laughing may help inhibit the fight-or-flight response, making laughter a behavioral sign of trust in one's companions.

Laughter is a part of human behavior regulated by the brain. It helps humans clarify their intentions in social interaction and provides an emotional context to our conversations. Laughter is used as a signal for being part of a group "" it signals acceptance and positive interactions. Laughter is contagious and the laughter of one person can itself provoke laughter from others. This may account in part for the popularity of laugh tracks in situation comedy television shows. A particularly dramatic demonstration of contagious laughter was the Tanganyikan laughter epidemic, which demonstrated that laughter can also be difficult to control and can occur, unpleasantly, when people are severely stressed.

Certain medical theories attribute improved health and well-being to laughter as it triggers the release of endorphins. A study demonstrated neuroendocrine and stress-related hormones decreased during episodes of laughter, which provides support for the claim that humor can relieve stress.

Research has shown that parts of the limbic system are involved in laughter. The limbic system is a primitive part of the brain that is involved in emotions and helps us with basic functions necessary for survival. Two structures in the limbic system are involved in producing laughter: the amygdala and the hippocampus.

In most people, laughter can be induced by tickling, a phenomenon in itself. Laughing gas is sometimes used as a painkiller. Other drugs, such as cannabis, can also induce episodes of strong laughter. The December 7, 1984 Journal of the American Medical Association describes the neurological causes of laughter as follows: Although there is no known "laugh center" in the brain, its neural mechanism has been the subject of much, albeit inconclusive, speculation. It is evident that its expression depends on neural paths arising in close association with the telencephalic and diencephalic centers concerned with respiration. Wilson considered the mechanism to be in the region of the mesial thalamus, hypothalamus, and subthalamus. Kelly and co-workers, in turn, postulated that the tegmentum near the periaqueductal gray contains the integrating mechanism for emotional expression. Thus, supranuclear pathways, including those from the limbic system that Papez hypothesized to mediate emotional expressions such as laughter, probably come into synaptic relation in the reticular core of the brain stem. So while purely emotional responses such as laughter are mediated by subcortical structures, especially the hypothalamus, and are stereotyped, the cerebral cortex can modulate or suppress them.

Humor provides a non-threatening medium through which an employee or employer can communicate with others without intensifying the emotional temperature of the relationship. Consider the frazzled secretary who posts the sign "I have only two speeds, and if this one isn't fast enough then I'm sure you're not going to like my other." Or the somewhat scattered boss whose messy desk is complimented with a note that says, "A Creative Mess is better than Tidy Idleness." The message is clear, yet the communication is done in a light and, therefore, less stressful way. The secretary's sign pokes fun at the situation, and the boss's note pokes some fun at himself.

The development of staff cohesion and a sense of team effort in the workplace can be effectively facilitated by the use of humor. Bulletin boards, electronic mail, intra-office memos, voice mail, etc. all offer mediums through which we can share humor with co-workers. Office jokes taking the seriousness of work lightly provide us with the opportunity to become more connected with others.

Work is often associated with stress, and we know that stress is one of the main causes of illness, absenteeism, employee burn-out, etc. Humor is a great stress reliever because it makes us feel good, and we can't feel good and feel stress simultaneously. At the moment we experience humor, feelings like depression, anger, and anxiety dissolve.

Humor and, its partner, laughter also reduce stress by activating the physiological systems including the muscular, respiratory, cardiovascular, and skeletal. In fact, we may even lose muscle control, as many of us have, when we laugh so hard that we fall down or wet our pants. Laughter has been labeled a jogging and juggling of the internal organs. When we laugh we feel physically better, and after laughter we feel lighter and more relaxed.

In addition, humor provides a psychological stress reducer as it snaps our thinking to another channel. Norman Cousins called it trainwrecks of the mind. One of the characteristics of humor is that it involves incongruity. We find things humorous when they are incongruous or mismatched. Good jokes guide us down one path only to suddenly track us onto another. The tracking is what we call the punch line. As we are tracked over, our thinking shifts and, in fact, breaking the mind set of the thinking leads to increased creativity.

Consider the story of the midwestern farmer crossing Harvard square searching for the library. He approaches a stately looking gentleman, who happens to be a Harvard English professor, and he asks, "Excuse me sir. Can you tell me where the library is at?" The professor looks somewhat disdainfully and replies, "At Harvard we do not end sentences with prepositions." After a pause the farmer turns back to the professor and asks, "Well then, can you tell me where the library is at...Asshole." In this joke we are guided down one path and suddenly tracked over to another. The incongruity is what we experience as humorous.

Another way in which humor oils the gears of the workplace is by providing perspective. Ashleigh Brilliant (known for his one- liners often found on postcards) says, "Distance doesn't really make you any smaller, but it does make you part of a bigger picture." Consider the Ziggy cartoon where Ziggy is lying on the psychiatrist's couch and the psychiatrist is saying, "The whole world isn't against you...there are BILLIONS of people who don't care one way or the other."

We know that all good lecturers have many jokes, stories, and anecdotes that are shared in order to command attention and energize the audience. Humor wakes us up and increases our attending. An office bulletin board loaded with cartoons, one liners, jokes, pictures, etc. is one way to invite humor into the workplace. A few moments of humor at work can lead to increased productivity as the newly energized employee returns to his or her task.

In working environments where humor is supported there develops a culture that utilizes the humor to reduce stress and provide perspective. We have all heard humor directed at lawyers, medical personnel, scientists, engineers, business persons, educators, etc. Learning to laugh at ourselves and our work lightens the load.

Humor is a major career asset, so let's be serious about humor and use humor to lighten our seriousness in the workplace. As we increase our personal humor quotient and spread our humor contagiously to others, we will begin to see the "lite" at the end of the tunnel.

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