Taking Humor Seriously

A version of this article appeared initially in the LAUGHING MATTERS magazine edited by Joel Goodman and published by The HUMOR Project, Inc., 10 Madison Avenue, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866 (518-587-8770; email questions@HumorProject.com). An adaptation of this article appeared recently as an op-ed piece on the Knight-Ridder Financial News Service (over 400 newspapers worldwide, America On Line, and 40,000 corporate computer terminals).

Taking Humor Seriously
By Joel Goodman

    "There are three things which are real:
    God, human folly, and laughter.
    The first two are beyond our comprehension.
    So we must do what we can with the third." (John F. Kennedy)

Since 1977, The HUMOR Project has been doing "what we can with the third." We have been "taking humor seriously." Here is some food for thought to make you "Humor-Wise"– why you and your organization might want to take humor seriously, too... along with some Humor How-To's:

Humor Why's

Take your job seriously... and take yourself lightly. In a recent survey of 737 CEO's, over 98% of them indicated they would much rather hire somebody with a good sense of humor than somebody without one. In the words of Don Seibert, former chief executive officer and chairman of the board of the JC Penney Company:

"The most senior people and virtually all of the chief executive officers with whom I'm personally acquainted have highly developed senses of humor. Humor is a common thread I've seen in thousands of meetings in different companies on the most serious of subjects.Humor helps you to keep your head clear when you're dealing in highly technical information or difficult decisions where choices aren't that clear."

In other words, you can be a serious professional without being a solemn professional. To illustrate this, I often call on the wisdom of an old sage– former manager of the New York Yankees, Casey Stengel. Casey was a very successful leader as his string of World Series championships would indicate. When asked his secret, Casey replied tongue-in-cheek, "The secret of managing is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the four... who are undecided." Humor can help us to survive– and thrive– at work.

Jest for the health of it! Perhaps the most significant bottom line is your health– without it, you're dead (literally or figuratively). Norman Cousins' best-selling book, Anatomy of an Illness, certainly opened up many people's eyes to the notion that "S/He who laughs lasts." William Fry, Jr., M.D., who has done research on the physiology of laughter for 45 years, lends support to Cousins' notion that laughter is like "internal jogging." Laughter enhances respiration and circulation, oxygenates the blood, suppresses the stress-related hormones in the brain, and activates the immune system. Indeed, laughter is the jest medicine!

"Stress" and "burn-out" have become household words in the 21st Century. A report to the President's Science Advisor places the cost of stress to the economy at $200 billion annually. Humor can be a powerful antidote to stress– in the midst of challenging times, it can help us to move from a "grim and bear it" mentality to a "grin and share it" orientation. This notion is captured well by George Burns, who said that "You can't help growing older, but you can help growing old." By using humor, we can prevent what I call a "hardening of the attitudes." If you stand rigidly in the face of stress, you are much more easily knocked off-balance. If you are flexible mentally, you are in a much better position to "roll with the punches" that life throws you.

This shows up over the long haul, too. In his longitudinal study of what made for "success in life," Dr. George Vaillant found humor to be one of the key mature coping mechanisms that insured that stress didn't kill more quickly and commonly. In other words, you can use humor to add years to your life and life to your years.

"A smile is the shortest distance between two people," according to Victor Borge. This has important implications, because the bottom line is that humor can be an effective way to build positive working relationships and to improve morale. This has very serious implications in these times when creative teamwork is essential to organizational innovation. There definitely is a connection between HAHA and AHA– humor and creativity go hand in hand.

In an interview in our LAUGHING MATTERS magazine, Ken Blanchard, author of the best-selling One-Minute Manager, notes "Humor and laughter in organizations can increase the amount of feedback you can get, the honesty, and the capacity for people to tell you good things. All the solutions to problems in organizations are within your own people, but the problem is half of them don't want to say anything, because they usually get zapped– you kill the messenger. It's through humor that you can open up the lines to communication."

Humor How To's

Over three million people throughout the United States and abroad have now attended our programs on the positive power of humor. About 80% of these people have indicated that they think they have a good sense of humor. Over 98% of them, however, relate that they can't tell a joke to save their lives.

Although joke-telling is one way to transmit humor, it's not the only way. In fact, there are literally thousands of ways to invite smiles and laughter in addition to joke-telling. So, if joke-telling is not your forte or if it is inappropriate for you to become the stand-up comic on-the-job, then there are alternatives. Here are four tips to get you going:

(1) Put humor into the physical environment – by osmosis, it may filter into people's awareness. This could be accomplished by having posters with such light-hearted sayings as "The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get to the office." (Robert Frost)

(2) Use humor as a tool rather than as a weapon. Laughing with others builds confidence, brings people together, and pokes fun at our common dilemmas. Laughing at others destroys confidence, ruptures teamwork, and singles out individuals or groups as the "butt". In the words of one fifth grade teacher, "You don't have to blow out my candle to make yours glow brighter." Humor is laughter made from pain, not pain inflicted by laughter. I subscribe to Susan RoAne's AT&T test– is the humor Appropriate, Timely, and Tasteful? If so, you can reach out and touch people positively with humor.

(3) Build humor into the corporate culture. There are a growing number of bottom-line-successful corporations that have been practicing what I've been teaching. For example, Southwest Airlines' President Herb Kelleher is well-known for his creative shenanigans and modeling of humor from the top down. Ben & Jerry's has established a "Joy Committee." They offer "Joy Grants" to their employees who have an idea that will bring more joy into the workplace.

(4) Humor's Bottom Line. I love a quote I came across from Tom Peters: "The number one premise of business is that it need not be boring or dull. It ought to be fun. If it's not fun, you're wasting your life." Set the tone by modeling your ability to laugh at yourself. One of the simplest and most powerful ways of doing this is to "tell stories on yourself" whenever appropriate. When Rose Cellino-Reynolds attended our annual conference, she passed along a great example of this:

Rose was attending a very serious convention of salespeople. She was feeling out-of-place, because it seemed that everyone in attendance had on a beeper. Rose was beeperless and feeling very unimportant. So, she went home that night, and came back to the conference the next day with a smile on her face... wearing her garage door opener.

Humor is a delightful
and powerful way to
open doors, minds,
and hearts.
Isn't that what we
and our organizations
should be doing?


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