The late Norman Cousins was a famous magazine editor and author when, at mid-life, he came down with what doctors believed was an incurable illness.
Cousins began an exhaustive study of the illness on his own and in the process, proved to himself and others that laughter can be a major contributor to healing. This is because of the flow of endorphins from the adrenaline system every time you laugh or feel good.
To keep the endorphins flowing, Cousins watched every Marx Brothers movie he could put his hands on. He went to great lengths to maintain a positive frame of mind. It worked.
Cured miraculously, Cousins spent the last part of his life as a lecturer at the UCLA School of Medicine, working with medical students. He was fond of telling the students there that "the control center of your life is your attitude. Negative attitudes lead to illness, low self-esteem and depression. Positive attitudes lead to hope, love, caring, fun and endorphin flow from the adrenaline system."
Cousins proved that a big dose of positive thinking and laughter on a daily basis could contribute as much to your continued health and well being as a basket full of pills.
Laughter and humor are not only good for people, but they are healthy for companies. That's why February is National Laugh Friendly month. I've always thought that kidding around at work is a good thing, which is why I've encouraged it for years at our envelope manufacturing company. We don't start a sales meeting without a good, tasteful joke.
Last fall, I saw the results of a study done by a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher who examined how humor affects the working environment.
Chris Robert, assistant professor of management in MU's College of Business, said that humor—particularly joking around about things associated with the job—actually has a positive impact in the workplace. Occasional humor among colleagues, he said, enhances creativity, department cohesiveness and overall performance.
"Humor is pretty important," said Robert. "It's not just clowning around and having fun. It has meaningful impact on cohesiveness in the workplace and communication quality among workers. The ability to appreciate humor, the ability to laugh and make other people laugh actually has physiological effects on the body that cause people to become more bonded."
I remember seeing a short article in the Harvard Business Review a few years ago that confirmed a belief I've held for years. I've always felt that humor is the unrecognized indicator of any business' true condition. The magazine pointed out how humor was the great, hidden metric for measuring a company's healthiness or lack thereof. It's seldom recognized or thought of when analyzing businesses.
In life in general, jokes are used to relieve anxiety, to mask hostility, to defuse potentially incendiary situations, and to expose truths that make people uneasy. That's why political jokes are a staple of late night comedy shows and standup comic routines. That's why the powerful are often lampooned in variety-show sketches and in newspaper editorial cartoons.
Everyone knows and can recognize the difference between humor that's affectionate and humor that's a dig. Every organization, every team, every group has malcontents and naysayers who drag down esprit de corps. It's a good idea, especially in business, to eliminate such people. Their negativity ultimately infects others and hurts morale, and, as a corollary, productivity.
Good managers monitor humor. You can learn plenty about your employees through company skits, cartoons posted on bulletin boards, jokes circulated via email, caustic remarks made in meetings, and nicknames assigned to managers. You have only to look at classic movies like "Mister Roberts," or "The Caine Mutiny" to see what devastating effects a bad boss can have on morale.
Managers who are remote never learn this lesson. They ignore company humor. They fail to circulate. They never walk through the plant, factory or office. When they shun close contact with employees, even those in the most basic positions, they cut themselves off from real knowledge: how the enterprise is doing in the hearts and minds of its most important constituents—the people working for it.
When you really get right down to it, fostering positive company-wide humor should be part of management's responsibility. Good managers pay attention to what their employees are saying, doing and feeling. A good sense of humor never hurts anyone.