Gaining a competitive advantage in today’s world is serious business. The problems we face as a society are serious as well. Even the most seasoned business leader can become weighed down with life’s challenges, and we rarely perform at our best when we feel that way. Sometimes we need to lighten up. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves not to be so serious.
The non-profit Mental Health America reminds us that humor—and especially the gift of laughter—is a potent weapon in the battle against mental illness.
- Laughter suppresses stress hormones and releases endorphins
- Laughter is a physical experience, stimulating heart, lungs, and muscles
- Over the long term, humor can help us build a stronger immune system
- Humor can also facilitate team-building and decrease burnout
Mental health benefits
There is growing evidence and truth about the cliché that laughter is the best medicine.
One researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital conducted the first objective study of the role of laughter in psychotherapy. He found that laughter is more than just humor—it is a way to communicate emotion and convey what cannot be expressed in words. Moreover, when two people share laughter, it is a validation of those feelings. Laughter becomes a shared experience of empathy.
Other therapists are successfully using laughter to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. The mediation of humor, they find, helps patient confront distressful memories while experiencing far less emotional affliction than usual.
Beyond the mental health benefits, humor can help business leaders better interact with others and avoid burnout. Moreover, its leavening effect can serve as a catalyst for teamwork and creative thinking throughout your organization.
As an executive wellness coach, I encourage my clients to see old problems through new lenses. When we change the way we frame the challenges that face us, we eventually change our mindset. Humor has the power to shuffle our perspective in an instant. By breaking the cycle of negative and fatalistic thinking, humor can reveal the opportunity hidden inside what appears to be just a problem.
Mindfulness is the foundation of my coaching practice, and there is evidence that laughter produces some of the same effects on our brain as meditation. Joyful laughter amplifies gamma wave activity across the entire brain, a “whole brain experience” as one researcher puts it. That state of mind allows us to think more clearly and in a more integrative manner.
Laughter and humor are inherently social. According to one paper published by the American Physiological Society, humor creates an environment that promotes learning. It also fosters rapport and “builds bonds as well as brains.”
Although we usually think of a smile as an expression of a good mood, it can work the other way around. The physical act of forming a smile (even if it feels forced at first) triggers physical and psychological benefits. Think of it as reverse-engineering your mood and mindset, making you healthier and happier.
The same holds for laughter. Laughter yoga has been practiced for several decades. Laughter is inherently contagious, and what may begin as simulated laughter naturally and organically become simultaneous and authentic. A paper published in the Journal of Psychology and Clinical Psychiatry offers some useful tips for creatively stimulating laughter.
Make a point of injecting humor into your day. Post an amusing cartoon on your desk. Check out a funny video on YouTube—just watching others laugh can be therapeutic.
Our interactions with children and animals often tend to be humorous in nature. Be deliberate in allowing for such diversions. Humor is ultimately about connecting with the world and with those around us—but on a different wavelength. Anxiety and worry can leave us isolated and disconnected. Humor and laughter have the power to restore connection at the snap of a finger. Humor is the ultimate disruptor.
Humor also reconnects us with ourselves. The human brain is remarkably resilient, but we lose sight of that when we let stress and worry get the best of us. A good laugh can quickly return us to our natural resilience. Just as a massage can restore flexibility to our muscles, a dose of humor can do the same for our hearts and minds.
Mental Health Awareness Month is a good time to be mindful of the healing power of humor and laughter. If we can intentionally weave levity into our days, we will be more agile, and light on our feet as business leaders—and that spirit will contagiously spread throughout our organizations as well.
Stepping outside of our situation and viewing it with humor enables us to create new possibilities and new beginnings. When we allow seriousness to weigh us down, the joke is on us.