The Power Of Humor

Humor is the oil that greases the gears of life. ~ Anonymous

How do you know if you are funny? Tim Allen, the famous star of Home Improvement, has openly shared how he developed his sense of humor, which has carried him to wealth and fame. For Tim, it happened in jail. In his early days in Detroit, he got in trouble stealing and found himself arrested and serving several months in jail.

Jail would seem no place to build a sense of humor, yet surrounded by fear and pain, Tim learned how to survive with a great sense of humor. He used humor to minimize conflict, to build relationships through common references of their world, to befriend everyone, and not to take sides. This actually sounds like a formula for good team building.

When tensions and emotions rise in business, bringing in laughter can supply enough oxygen and blood flow to our brain’s prefrontal cortex to minimize our tendency to react too fast. It can help us to avoid saying things we will later regret.

Malcolm Gladwell reported that children laugh nearly 400 times a day, compared to adults who laugh only 20 times a day. When did we become so serious?

Joel Stein, the New York Times humor columnist recently reported that as people get older, they stop smiling and laughing as frequently. This, and other emerging research collected by Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jennifer Aaker and lecturer Naomi Bagdonas, who co-teach a course on the subject, suggests that people fall off a “humor cliff” — both in laugh frequency and self-perceptions of funniness — around the time they enter the workforce. The reason humor works as a bridge between people is that laughter sparks the release of oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates social bonding and increases trust.


“Humor also increases power through memorability.” Biologist and author John Medina noted in his book Brain Rules that “the brain doesn’t pay attention to boring things.” In addition to oxytocin, laughter releases dopamine which aids in memory and information processing.


A few years ago, Leonard Nimoy. the actor famous for portraying Spock on the TV show Star Trek, was selected to direct Star Trek III. That also meant he would be directing William Shatner, the actor portraying Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek. William was Leonard’s mentor and Star Trek’s leading actor. Leonard was anxious about guiding William on the set, since Leonard may need to direct his former colleague.

As the crew realized how awkward the Nimoy-Shatner relationship might be, tensions began to rise.  In one early scene, Leonard did direct William, and William disagreed on how to play the scene. The two began to argue and as voices raised, Leonard asked everyone in the crew to leave except William. As the crew left, Leonard and William went at it. They argued and yelled at each other. Leonard finally, in a fit of rage, yelled for William to “ …get over yourself because you are only the actor and I am the Director!!”

The crew was aghast as they tried to listen through the stage door. William and Leonard knew they would try to listen, and when the crew came back in, William and Leonard had the biggest laugh at the crew. From that point on trust, laughter and family began to grow. Star Trek III was so successful that  Leonard Nimoy went on to direct many more movies, even including another Star Trek movie with many members of the crew from Star Trek III.


Two rules of humor:

1. If you are going to be funny – be Funny. Even if you think it’s funny, it may not actually be funny. Practice a joke or an interesting perspective on close friends and see if they find it funny.  If they don’t, rework or delete that joke from your conversations.


2. Make fun of yourself first. People may bristle if you make fun of them or other people. Be the butt in your own joke and people will see you have strong confidence and character. This works best when you are the supervisor.  To be too self-deprecating as an employee to your boss, may be off-putting.  When Johnny Carson bombed on a joke he’d blame his microphone, not the audience for not getting it. Self-deprecation humanizes leaders, creates connections with employees, and makes people think the self-deprecator is even more powerful than she is: after all, if she can afford to mock herself, she must be confident in her abilities. It also signals to other employees that they are allowed to be funny.


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