• By your mid-20s you’ve started laughing a lot less than you used to.
  • Laughter helps people bond, promotes inclusiveness and fosters creativity.
  • You don't have to be a comedian; just being open to humour is enough.

If you feel like there’s not much to laugh about right now, you’re probably not alone. But there are sound, scientific reasons to reach for the gags even if you don't feel like it, and especially at work.

That’s according to two Stanford University academics who have examined the effects of laughter in the workplace and concluded it makes us better bosses and better employees.

The study was a truly global one: 1.4 million people in 166 countries. One of the things it found was that around the age of 23, people everywhere start to laugh less.

“So basically, when we enter the workforce we fall off a humour cliff,” Stanford psychology professor Jennifer Aaker said in an interview with The Times. “We don’t start laughing again until 70. So that’s 47 very serious years.”

And in addition to any potential health benefits of laughter, it also plays an underrated role in strengthening workplace bonds.

“We have research to show that humour, when you’re at work, is not only helpful for increasing people’s respect for you, but also for building bonds and sparking creativity so you can think in very different ways,” Professor Aaker told The Times.

Joy over jokes

Along with fellow Stanford lecturer, Naomi Bagdonas, Aaker is the co-author of Humour, Seriously, a book summarizing their findings.

Adding more humour to the work side of your work-life balance does not mean you have to be funny ... as funny as that may seem. The key instead is to be open to humour, to accept and welcome it, Aaker and Bagdonas say.

“It’s not about being a comedian,” Bagdonas explains. “It’s about joy over jokes.”

And she ought to know. As well as being a serious academic, Bagdonas is also a stand-up comedian, having trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade, which teaches comedy and improvisation skills. She also teaches people how to be funny, and has run courses in the San Francisco County jail.

In a Stanford University podcast, Bagdonas described realizing that her professional persona was very different to who she was outside of work. “So what happened for me then was I made it a point to bring more humour into work,” she explained. “And as I did, I found that it could actually be a powerful tool. So not only could I have more joy in the office and feel more authentic, but it could actually be a powerful asset for me in the professional world just like it was for me personally.”

You cannot be serious

“The collective loss of our sense of humour is a serious problem afflicting people and organizations globally,” Aaker says.

Humour in the workplace can help unlock people’s confidence and creativity, Aaker and Bagdonas believe. They also feel it can play an important role in helping maintain organizational cohesion during remote working. Some studies have shown that working away from colleagues can lead to feelings of disconnectedness and isolation. Across a range of criteria, researchers found a correlation between working from home and feeling negatively about work issues.

Remote working work employment happiness
Some remote workers can end up feeling a little too remote.
Image: Harvard Business Review

“When we ask people what holds them back from using humour at work, many believe that humour simply has no place amidst serious work. We’re worried about harming our credibility and not necessarily being taken seriously,” Aaker says.

“And yet in large scale studies that we run and that others have run, the large majority of leaders really prefer employees with a sense of humour and believe that employees with a sense of humour do better work.”

Bagdonas concurs: “Humour helps with engagement in part because when we laugh, the reward centre of our brains is flooded with the neurotransmitter dopamine. So this engenders deeper focus and better long-term retention.”