Working adults in the U.S. are experiencing a “laughter drought” — and it could be making us feel less engaged and fulfilled in our jobs.
That’s according to a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review. In her article “Leading With Humor,” Alison Beard quotes from research hailing from a range of institutions like Wharton and London Business School on the importance of laughter in the workplace. And yet, despite its proven host of benefits, people are laughing at work less than ever.
“Babies laugh, on average, 400 times a day; people over 35, only 15,” Beard wrote. “A recent study of Gallup data for the U.S. found that we laugh significantly less on weekdays than we do on weekends. Work is a sober endeavor.”
Bearing statistics like these in mind, it perhaps isn’t surprising that employee burnout is on the rise. We spend the better part of our waking hours at work. If that time fails to allow space for joy — which laughter is inarguably a core part of — is it really so shocking that workers are feeling drained, used and unfulfilled?
Here are five reasons laughter should be reinstated as a crucial part of our work days.
Laughter comes with a number of physiological benefits that ultimately decrease the amount of stress hormones in our bodies, like cortisol and epinephrine. It’s also a key way of accessing dopamine from the brain’s reward center. According to the Mayo Clinic: “When you start to laugh, it doesn’t just lighten your load mentally, it actually induces physical changes in your body. It enhances your intake of ‘oxygen-rich air,’ increasing your brain’s release of endorphins. It can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.”
Citing research from Wharton, MIT and London Business School, Beard wrote that laughter “boosts engagement and well-being, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity.” Plus, workers who feel more connected and engaged in their jobs are less likely to engage in absenteeism.
Laughter serves as a natural boost to our immune systems, according to a wide range of studies, including one published in the American Journal of Medical Science. That study found that laughter has a significant impact on the body’s production of natural killer cells, which help us fight off illnesses.
Human beings are social creatures, and laughter is an important ritual that connects us to others. According to one 2010 study measuring the positive impact of laughter on dementia patients (which is in and of itself super interesting!), laughter and smiling are important functions of expressing the good will that helps us bond with others.
"Because some forms of smiling are voluntary and easily faked, laughter, which requires a more synergetic contraction of the wider musculature, is believed to have evolved in humans to express a secure, safe message to others,” the study’s authors wrote.
For workers, feeling like we have the freedom and permission to bring our full selves to work is paramount to ensuring engagement and, ultimately, retention. Given that most of us, by and large, enjoy laughter in our everyday lives, having to shut that off at the office can feel unnatural and stultifying. The good news is that lightening up through laughter doesn’t take much effort to start implementing. If you’re in a workplace, however, where busting out a cackle from behind your desk would be seriously frowned upon, it may be time to start looking for a different (read: better) culture fit.