Leading with humor: Laughter Is an affirmation of humanity
What Groucho Marx is to the Marx Brothers is what laughter is to humor.
Groucho was the spark that catalyzed the comedy mayhem that makes the Marx Brothers laugh out loud funny.
Humor is the condition of being or seeing funny things. Laughter is the physical manifestation of it.
Laughs take many forms: a chuckle, a giggle, a guffaw, a belly laugh.
Humor is an elixir, a tonic that is good for mind and spirit. Laughter is good for the body.
“Some early research suggests that humor and laughter activate our bodies to turn down the stress hormones (cortisol and epinephrine) and turn up the happiness hormones (oxytocin and dopamine) as well as the natural pain killers (endorphins),” says Dr. David Fessell, a professor of radiology at the University of Michigan.
More systematic research is needed. That said, "many believe the positive emotions associated with humor and laughter help decrease stress, and may help decrease the risk of stress-related diseases," says Fessell.
During the crisis, people feel frazzled, as well as pushed and pulled in different directions. In short, they need to find relief, and if they can discover that relief in a shared experience, laughter becomes more than a palliative; it comes a unifier.
A historical example is "The Wipers Times," an ersatz newspaper put together by British soldiers fighting in Flanders during World War. (The paper took its name from the mispronunciation of the Flemish town Ypres.)
The paper, as recounted on Wikipedia, reported on the doings of the soldiers as they battled terror on the one hand and boredom on the other. Lack of access to alcohol and female company, of course, were de rigueur. The paper served as a relief valve for the men to vent their frustrations by incorporating humor.
Most British army units also staged makeshift musical reviews that played the hardships for laughs as well as providing opportunities for the troops to listen to songs that reminded them of their sweethearts back home.
A successor-in-spirit to such shows is the United Service Organizations, or USO, which began in 1941 just before US involvement in World War II and continues to this day.
Big-name entertainers beginning with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby volunteered their services. Hope himself made it an annual Christmastime tradition to visit the troops. Comedy was the staple, but so too were skits and music. Laughter in times of crisis is essential to morale and reducing stress.
Laughter as therapy
Struggling as leaders are with challenges brought on by the pandemic, “humor and laughter help us cope,” Fessell says. “It helps us personally -- with our mood, and likely has some positive effects on our body. And it helps us build and strengthen social bonds. It is those bonds and relationships” that leaders can employ to bring the team together.
“We can use humor to reframe stressful events positively and empower ourselves. When we laugh, we remind ourselves that we are not defeated, we have agency and choice,” he says. “Use humor to help yourself and others laugh. If you see a funny meme, picture or joke, share it. When you share, you create a communal spirit and that helps the team weather the storm of crisis and change.“
In short, laughing together enhances cohesion and community, something we can all use in tough times.
Note: A feature film about the World War I newspaper, titled "The Wipers Times," is available on streaming services.
John Baldoni is an internationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach who provides his services via video conference. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, Inc.com named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. In 2020, Global Gurus once again named Baldoni a top 30 global leadership expert, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, Inc.com named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. Baldoni is the author of 14 books, including “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership” and his newest, "GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us." You can find his tips on leading in a crisis here.