Provision #716: Laughter Matters

Laser Provision

Imagine that you have been asked to assist an organization that wants to improve its performance as well as its relationships. That organization may be a school, a corporation, a non-profit, a religious congregation, a governmental agency, or any other form of human organization. When you walk in the door for the first time, what’s the quickest way to size up the work that has to be done? In a word: laughter. Organizations where people do not laugh are organizations in deep trouble. Laughter is not only good for the soul, it is also good for the bottom line. Too many leaders forget this all important truth. We do so, however, at great cost. Read on to see how this works and how to turn things around.

LifeTrek Provision

Marty Seligman, Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has just published an important new book titled Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (Free Press, 2011). Among many claims to fame, Seligman is credited with launching the modern, positive psychology movement during his tenure as president of the American Psychological Association in 1998. In Flourish, Seligman describes how positive psychology got its start through generous funding by a large, anonymous foundation.

“What would you like to research?” representatives of the foundation asked Seligman. “Positive psychology,” he replied. “Send us a three-pager and a budget,” they instructed. One month later, a check for US $1.5 million appeared on his desk. That’s not a bad return for three pages and a budget! And the money certainly helped to launch a movement, both academic and applied, in which thousands of people are now engaged and employed. But nearly ten years ago when Seligman first told the story of how positive psychology began, he gave more credit to his five-year-old daughter, Nikki, than to the money from an anonymous foundation.

Although I have reprinted that story before in Provisions, I share it again now, for two reasons: (1) it makes me laugh, every time I read it, and (2) it makes me think that if grouchy old men can change their ways so can ill-humored and quarrelsome organizations. Seligman writes:

“The notion of a positive psychology movement began at a moment in time a few months after I had been elected president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1998. It took place in my garden while I was weeding with my 5-year-old daughter, Nikki.”

“I have to confess that even though I write books about children, I’m really not all that good with them. I am goal-oriented and time-urgent, and when I am weeding in the garden, I am actually trying to get the weeding done. Nikki, however, was throwing weeds into the air and dancing around. I yelled at her. She walked away, came back, and said, ‘Daddy, I want to talk with you.'”

“‘Yes, Nikki?'”

“‘Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday? From the time I was three to the time I was five, I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five, I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.'”

“This was for me an epiphany, and nothing less,” Seligman observes. “I learned something about raising kids, something about myself, and a great deal about my profession. First, I realized that raising Nikki was not about correcting whining. Nikki did that herself. Rather, I realized that raising Nikki was about taking this marvelous skill • I call it ‘seeing into the soul’ • and amplifying it, nurturing it, helping her to lead her life around it to buffer against her weaknesses and the storms of life.”

“Raising children, I realized, is more than fixing what is wrong with them. It is about identifying and nurturing their strongest qualities, what they own and are best at, and helping them find niches in which they can best live out these positive qualities.”

“As for my own life, Nikki hit the nail right on the head. I was a grouch. I had spent 50 years mostly enduring wet weather in my soul, and the last 10 years being a nimbus cloud in a household of sunshine. Any good fortune I had was probably not due to my grouchiness but in spite of it. In that moment, I resolved to change.”

“But the broadest implication of Nikki’s lesson was about the science and practice of psychology. Before World War II, psychology had three distinct missions: curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling, and identifying and nurturing high talent.”

“Right after the war, two events • both economic • changed the face of psychology. In 1946, the Veterans Administration was founded, and thousands of psychologists found out that they could make a living treating mental illness. At that time, the profession of clinical psychologist came into its own. In 1947, the National Institute of Mental Health (which was based on the American Psychiatric Association’s disease model and is better described as the National Institute of Mental Illness) was founded, and academics found out that they could get grants if their research was described as being about pathology.”

“This arrangement brought many substantial benefits. There have been huge strides in the understanding of and therapy for mental illness: At least 14 disorders, previously intractable, have yielded their secrets to science and can now be either cured or considerably relieved. But the downside was that the other two fundamental missions of psychology • making the lives of all people better and nurturing genius • were all but forgotten.” (M. Seligman, Positive Psychology, Positive Prevention, and Positive Therapy, 2002).

Isn’t that a delightful story! Out of the mouths of babes, comes an epiphany. Throw in $1.5 million, and the epiphany becomes a movement. Today, more than a decade after Seligman made “positive psychology” the theme of his APA presidency, it can no longer be said that researchers have been neglecting the study of what makes people and organizations flourish. Gone are the days when grants are limited to pathology, dysfunction, and deficits. “Positive psychology” • the study of optimal human functioning • has established itself as an important alternative with a clear, research-based message: it’s good to feel good.

Now that might strike you as a rather obvious and self-evident conclusion, but the evidence has been forcing many leaders to reconsider issues related to leadership style and organizational culture. I will not forget what one of my clients said to me, years ago, who was the CEO of a large corporation: “I don’t care whether or not people like me or like each other. I don’t care whether or not people like their job. Too much laughter, in fact, makes me nervous. I pay people to do what I want them to do. If they don’t want to do the work, they can find another job and I can find another employee. It’s that simple.”

It may have been that simple in his mind, ten years ago, but positive psychology and many other fields of inquiry, such as positive organizational scholarship, have documented the problems with that approach. When people feel bad, they not only get sick more but they also perform poorly. When people feel good, even to the point of laughing out loud, they stay healthy, engaged, and productive. It pays for leaders to make work fun, which • as Seligman documents in his most recent book • does not equate with easy or even pleasurable. Work becomes fun when it is marked by five elements, each of which contribute in their own, unique way to well-being:

  • Positive emotion. How happy am I?
  • Positive engagement. How interested am I?
  • Positive relationships. How connected am I?
  • Positive meaning. How valuable am I?
  • Positive achievements. How competent am I?

We’ve covered each of these attributes from various angles as part of our current Provision series on Evocative Leadership. Great leaders make sure that people feel happy, interested, connected, valuable, and competent. That’s a far cry from the replaceable-part, cog-in-the-wheel mentality of that CEO industrialist. When we view people as expendable objects we limit their contributions, shortchange their creativity, constrain their resilience, and constrict their effectiveness. In a rapidly-changing world no leader can afford to sacrifice such instrumental organizational qualities. No leader can afford to make people miserable.

So make people laugh instead. Laughter in the workplace is a good sign, not a bad sign. Research indicates that laughter:

  • Reduces stress and boosts the immune system
  • Expands creativity and imagination
  • Strengthens relationships and morale
  • Improves memory and comprehension
  • Increases productivity and performance

In other words, laughter increases all five elements of well-being identified by Seligman in Flourish. Children laugh naturally up to 300-400 times per day; that’s part of what makes them so attractive and adorable. Adults are lucky if we laugh out loud even 15 times a day. We think first and laugh later; children laugh first and think later. How do we turn that around? Here are a few tips for appropriate workplace fun:

  • Move around and interact with people directly. Laughter will follow.
  • Share and laugh at our own mistakes. Confucius say: “Being ashamed of our mistakes turns them into crimes.”
  • Surprise people with kindness. Even little things can lighten the load.
  • Include humorous quotes in communications. Bombeck say: “When humor goes, there goes civilization.”
  • Take breaks or stay after work for games and other stress busters with colleagues. People who play together, work better together.

Such frivolity must be balanced, of course, with the task at hand. People at work have things to accomplish and do. Stakeholders and shareholders expect accountability and value. Leaders would not be leaders were we to lose sight of the business at hand. But great leaders understand a great truth: laughter matters. Work is serious business but that does not make it the business of seriousness. The old notion of whistling while we work, which has declined even more than laughter, turns out to be good advice, at least as a metaphor: work goes better when people have fun.

So look for ways to cultivate positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievements at work. Make sure people are not only productive but happy. Well-being is not just a nice-to-have, as health insurance companies have now discovered. Well-being is a have-to-have. It prevents disease and disability, which costs far less than recovering from disease and disability. Great leaders understand that well-being is not an individual pursuit; it is a collective endeavor and a common cause for us all.

Coaching Inquiries: How much laughter permeates your workplace? What could you do to laugh more and to help others laugh with you? How might laughter make you and others more productive? What could make you less grumpy and more grateful? Who do you know who epitomizes that spirit? What is one thing you could do today that would make everyone feel better?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

Thanks for the recommendation of The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey. What a fantastic book. Definitely had parallels to the books I’ve read by Eckhart Tolle, and his philosophy on the ego mind and self 1. Thanks again, hope you’re well! 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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