Why it's okay to be funny about serious things

“Humour is a superpower in business, now more than ever,” says Naomi Bagdonas, a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in her class on the benefits of leading with laughter. It’s not a new concept to Novation; we’ve had years of practice honing our funny bones and seeing our LOLs in action. Being funny is in our DNA and it’s a deliberate strategy. Here’s the fascinating science behind why it’s okay to be funny at – and about – work.


Along with tapping your favourite app or hearing the microwave ping, a laugh lights up the brain’s dopamine system. The anticipation of a pleasurable reward is how your brain motivates you to do certain things, but it also helps you to remember for longer periods.

Multiple studies have found that humour boosts retention, whether the information is itself couched in a joke, or you’ve just been laughing recently. Humour is particularly useful for helping people to remember phrases and sentences. In one study, people who watched a funny clip before taking a short-term memory test recalled more than twice as much information as those in a control group. So, as Naomi Bagdonas says (twice), if you’re not saying something amusing in your legal documents, you had better be saying it twice as many times.

While this list of witty nuggets hidden in contracts is worth a read for sneaky references to the alien beauty of Benedict Cumberbatch and claims on the immortal souls and first-born children of careless customers, we’re not into hiding things in otherwise verbose and jargon-thick contracts. We like to think our own SLA, which uses plain language and happens to reference the zombie apocalypse, ugly crying and secret sauce, helps clients to understand and remember the terms of the agreement more easily.


When we laugh, oxytocin (also released during sex and childbirth) creates and builds bonds of trust.

“For people who are laughing together, shared laughter signals that they see the world in the same way, and it momentarily boosts their sense of connection,” says social psychologist Sara Algoe, who co-authored a study on how laughter works as social glue. Perceived similarity is an important part of relationships, whether personal or professional. This similarity and shared trust is essential when fostering feelings of loyalty between customers and brands.


The pandemic has surely shown us that sometimes making jokes about terrible things can make those things seem less terrible. In an emotion-regulation study at Stanford, researchers showed subjects a series of images ranging from dental exams to corpses and car accidents. Some of the subjects were then asked to improvise jokes about the photos, and the result was an increase in positive emotions. (What also feels great: not being a subject in this study.) “If you are able to teach people to be more playful, to look at the absurdities of life as humorous, you see some increase in wellbeing,” said postdoc researcher Andrea Samson.

Laughter also makes you more able to take the pain. This study showed that subjects’ pain thresholds were significantly higher after laughing than in the control group. This pain-tolerance effect is due to the physiological result of laughter, which brings about an “endorphin-mediated opiate effect”. Even if you don’t join us in enjoying a calming CBD gummy during stressful times, adding a dash of natural opiate to your contracts could be mutually beneficial.


It’s a fact: watching something funny before a brainstorm will bring more creative results. Research at Northwestern University found that lifting the mood of volunteers with a comedy increased their likelihood of having an aha! moment. The comedy viewers were markedly better at solving a puzzle than those who watched a horror film, or even worse, a boring lecture.


According to studies – and, well, us – successful leaders generally use humour more often. The McClelland Centre for Research and Innovation found that “outstanding” executives use humour more than twice as often as the so-called average executives. There was also a direct correlation between the use of humour and the size of their compensation. Philosopher John Morreall explains that guiding the laughter of a group becomes a way of exercising power over the “emotional climate”, and thereby strengthening connections. A Harvard Law School article about how to use laughter in negotiations agrees that telling a relevant joke projects professional confidence and competence.


Surely there’s no better argument for humour in serious situations than seeing how comedy plays a role in confronting universal issues like climate change or gender issues. The Americans are especially good at political comedy in their late-night shows, with our own Trevor Noah leading the pack. So much so that American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) has launched “The Laughter Effect,” a creative and research initiative on this very topic. Linking back to our first point about retention, a Pew Research poll shows that viewers of amusing news shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report showed a higher retention of facts than those who got their information from mainstream newspapers or TV channels.


Even the WEF agrees that a sense of humour is an important life skill. But what if you were born without a funny bone? It seems that, like anything, practice makes perfect. If you’re not able to sign up for a formal business course on humour in the workplace, you might try a more DIY approach. Monty Python’s John Cleese advises that you start small by adding your own flavour to somebody else’s joke. After you get the hang of it, you won’t need to borrow anymore.

Being humorous doesn’t stop at client-facing documentation and presentations. We advise building rituals with your team that help you connect with each other and laugh together – especially if you work remotely.

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