Why do we laugh at movies like Office Space or shows like The Office? What’s so funny about work?
For one student in the GGSC’s online Foundations of Happiness at Work course, humor is found in everyday faux pas. Steve from California shared, “During a meeting, my boss complimented our colleague…saying how handsome he is. The team felt awkwardly surprised, until our boss corrected, ‘No—it’s great how hands-on he is!’ Everyone laughed, easing the tension from the meeting. ‘Well, he is handsome, too!’ I defended jokingly, and we all laughed again.”
Work may seem like a serious place. But, according to research, introducing some laughter into work life can contribute to our well-being and productivity. In fact, finding humor is one of the practices we teach students in our online course. The funny stories they shared remind us that a little playfulness goes a long way toward a more enjoyable work life.
The benefits of humor at work
Humor creates an atmosphere of levity and a sense of perspective that can dissolve tension and, in turn, protect us from stress at work and even benefit our health. Moreover, research suggests that people who engage in more conversational humor with colleagues feel happier and have higher job satisfaction.
Laughter serves to create and strengthen social bonds in humans—as well as in our chimp ancestors. One evolutionary theory claims that laughter first emerged in these ancestors as a response to signal safety and relief to others after something unexpected occurs. This has implications in modern times, and it may explain why colleagues who laugh more together tend to enjoy a more safe or comfortable environment and a greater sense of cohesion among teams.
“When friends laugh . . . in unison, their fight-flight response (e.g., increased blood pressure) is calmed and mirror neurons fire,” explains Dacher Keltner. “Shared laughter becomes a collective experience, one of coordinated action, cooperative physiology, and the establishing of common ground.”
Feeling comfortable in our work environment can empower us to think openly and take risks—a foundation for finding creative solutions at work, contributing to our productivity. In one study, leaders who used humor at work were more likely to reach their unit’s target goals, and to receive a higher performance rating from their direct supervisor, one year later.
What’s more, when supervisors integrate humor into their leadership style, they become more likeable, while maintaining respect and influence. One survey study found that employees who say that their manager “makes us laugh at ourselves when we are too serious” or “uses humor to take the edge off during stressful periods” were more likely to trust their manager, and feel a sense of belonging and contentedness at work.
A hint of self-deprecating humor can also be a useful tool for leaders and other employees to make themselves more approachable. One study revealed that when leaders and employees share this style of self-effacing banter, employees tend to gain even more professional respect for leaders—a counterintuitive finding for leaders who are afraid to show weakness.
Still, there are some types of humor that can be counterproductive, namely condescending humor that belittles people’s worth or status. This is different from gentle teasing, which can bond colleagues together and help us to not take ourselves too seriously. As our student Malika from Saudi Arabia shared, “My coworker did a funny impression of me, and it really made me laugh. It made me feel more included and that they know me really well.”
How to find the humor at work
One way to get more out of the funny moments that happen at work is by writing them down. A 2016 study found that participants who journaled about three funny things every evening for a week felt less depressed immediately afterward, and happier up to six months later, compared to a group who journaled about their early memories.
In the Foundations of Happiness at Work course, we asked people to try this out, and we took a close look at their responses to see what they find funny at work. While some funny moments are out of our control—from pen ink leaking onto our work clothes to accidentally hitting “reply all”—most funny moments can be created with a little bit of practice.
Often, they come from making jokes related to everyday work life. Melissa from Oregon wrote, “My coworker and I were getting ready to step out for a cup of coffee, and she grabbed a huge Big-Gulp-sized mug. We both erupted into laughter because it wasn’t that far-fetched at how much we both needed that much coffee.”
We can also get more creative and integrate humor into work tasks. Leif-Arne from Norway shared, “The HR department had made their own rap during a leadership gathering. That was quite funny, and it helped loosen up the whole gathering.”
Even when work is stressful, finding humor in the situation (if we’re able to) can help. Mariëlle from the Netherlands wrote, “I was talking to a colleague about how much time the local government took to decide whether they wanted me to lead a project about shortening waiting times in youth care. Kind of funny it took them so long to decide, considering the subject of the matter. To complain and joke a bit about it made waiting for their final call less of a burden. It places things in perspective.”
Of course, humor isn’t always called for—particularly if it’s a distraction from our tasks (as Jim Halpert’s from The Office is) or keeps us from seeing and addressing real problems at work. But in many situations, sharing jokes with colleagues and finding humor in the chaos or the mundane can make work a little more fun.