Rochelle Lockridge recently wrote a post about how DS106 was being adopted in her organisation and how she now had an official mandate to adopt its ideas for work. She talks about how it turns out that DS106 is not just #4life but also #4work.

Rochelle and I have been talking about finding ways engage corporations in what we are doing in DS106. 

I commented on her post as follows:

So inspirational, Rochelle! Thank you. Yes to participating in any way you can use me. I would like to write an article, may be jointly? Outlining the model and generalising it for other people in business? It would be great if I could test with my own clients in business and/or in business school I work in. Many ideas! See? It was not just play. I wrote an articles while ago about how if we are ‘plerking’ (playing and working) we are more effective at work. It was about my laughter book, I had a similar situation to you. I learnt laughter therapy, the value of laughter at work and life for my own interest. It became a book and a popular ‘Laughing Matters’ workshop I used to run for organisations.
So, you never know. May be you will be writing the definitive DS106 at work book? 

We carried on the conversation on our Google+ community and Rochelle said:

Thanks for the comment on my blog. It stuck. “Plerking”… I like that word. I’m feeling a need to look up more of your writing and work. Humor, fun, enjoyment, in a friendly non-fear based plerking environment, provided you are working with a clear vision and people who have moved beyond a narrow narcissistic focus, can be an amazing experience for everyone involved.

I promised I would look up the original article for her, but on reading it I felt it was a little dated and promised to write a post on the ideas bringing the article up to date. 

I was one of the first people who explored the importance of laugher to the  creative life. I went to California (where else?) to become a qualified Laughter Therapist and came back to the UK inspired to bring those ideas to my stuffy business school environment. I ended up running laughter workshop for many corporations, it was picked up by the media and I had my 10 minutes of fame as a laughter expert. This was 10 years ago and now i have moved on to Open Education as Laughter workshops and Laugher Yoga have become mainstream, and I got bored of stating the obvious. Many providers are offering their own flavour of the ideas. I no longer run these workshops, but I did write a book about it which you can now buy for 1pence in Amazon, this makes me laugh each time I see it! Time moves on as do ideas. 

Yet, I also feel that ideas have a cyclical nature and I have now asked the publishers for permission to publish my book as an open learning resource. I have had their blessing as they do not plan to re-publish. It is on my list of things to do for Open Education. Hey, I could run a MOOC on ‘Laughing Matters – how to live your life creatively with laughter’. I digress. 

Here I want to bring up to date the application of Laughter Therapy to work and answer the question: Should we be working or just plerking?

At the end of one of my workshops on the very serious topic of how much ‘Laughing Matters’ in our life, one of the participants came up to me to me and said;

‘You talk about combining laughter and work, I wonder if that is part of the origin of the expression “larking about”? Have you heard it? The interesting thing is that we use it at work a lot. If anyone is having a laugh we tell him or her to stop larking about, don’t we?’

I don’t know the etymology of the word, but I liked his idea.

I believe we should most certainly be larking about as much as we have the courage to! Roffey Park Management Institute asked me a few years ago, to offer a workshop on the topic of laughter at work. I planned for a small gathering of 10 people, but over 60 people actually attended on the day. Many senior managers and directors of large organizations gathered to explore the relationship between laughter and work. This was the start of my journey into becoming ‘a laughter expert’. Since that tentative first step many workshops have run, a book has been written and I have had much more media exposure than I feel equipped to deal with. But enough of my personal story.

What does work mean to us?  Do laughter and play have a place in our traditional view of work?  why does laughter matters? You already know that laughter is contagious, that laughter involves all of you and that, sometimes, you can laugh until you cry. Laugher happens when we play, but is not a part of ‘serious’ work. Or is it?

Work and play

Play is not serious, but work is. Play is for children, work is for adults. If we are playing we are not working and the two should never mix. If we play at work we can not be thorough and we are most surely being unprofessional.

Or are we?

Let’s talk some more about the notion of play and its power. When we joke about the misfortunes of other people or ourselves, we laugh at a victim. But in play the victim is not real, but virtual. If we say ‘It’s just a joke’ this means it is not real. We are putting a play frame around something painful, as in the case of jokes about national tragedies. William Fry actually defines humour as play,

‘First, humor is play. Cues are given that this, which is about to unfold, is not real. There is a “play frame” created around the episode’.

From this we could argue that, there is no hurtful humour. If we put a ‘play frame’ around it, any topic can be used to help us laugh. To some extent this is true. What is missing from this equation is permission. Putting a play frame around some awful event at the office will help us deal with the awful event so long as all the parties concerned have agreed that ‘this is play’.

A lot of the laughter that happens in organizations is what I label hurtful laughter; there is no permission. We tease and ridicule others under the very convenient heading of ‘What is the matter with you, can’t you take a joke?’ with that the victim is caught, unhappy about being picked on without permission but unable to say anything for fear of being labeled a spoilsport. Do you recognize any of this?

When there is permission we can have the kind of laughter that helps us deal with stress. We can put a genuine play frame around work and benefit from all its qualities:

☺ It does not matter

☺ It is not important

☺ We can experiment and fail. Try again and fail better

☺ We can play with meaning for no purpose

☺ The end goal is in the background

☺ What matters is to keep the game going

If work is play then we can achieve that most fundamental of all work skills, we can be creative. When you give a monkey a problem to solve and it expects a banana as a reward, it takes longer to solve the problem than when it is just messing around with the problem! Humans are not that different. If we can think about our work as play we can free up our imagination and find ways to find laughter in our day even when the content of our work may be repetitive.

Laughing matters

Laughter is important because it gives us:

☺ It releases tension

☺ It gives us perspective

☺ It helps deal with adversity

☺ It give us a mental time out from everyday stress

☺ It is a drug-free way of re-balancing our body and countering the harmful effects of stress

That laughter helps us deal with stress mentally is something that most of us do not need to be convinced about. The problem is that at the most stressful times we forget about this important survival technique. We judge that time to be inappropriate for laughter. This is not funny. This is serious.

Well, next time you find yourself making that particular judgement bear in mind what I’m about to tell you about the connection between laughter and stress. Stress creates unhealthy physiological changes. The link between stress and high blood pressure, muscle tension, a suppressed immune system, and many other changes has been demonstrated and we also have evidence that laughter counters these harmful changes.

Researchers have shown that the experience of laughter lowers cortisol levels, increases amounts of activated T-cells, increases the number and activity of natural killer (NK) cells. In short, laughter stimulates the immune system, off-setting the effects of stress. Let’s look at this in more detail:

☺ During stress, the adrenal gland releases corticosteroids that are quickly converted to cortisol in the blood stream. High levels of these have an immunosuppressive effect. Research has shown that laughter lowers cortisol levels and protects our immune system

☺ NK cells attack viral or cancerous cells. They are key in the prevention of cancer. Cells in our bodies are constantly changing and produce potential carcinogenic cells. A healthy immune system activates NK cells. These destroy carcinogenic cells.

☺ T cells are activated in laughter and these provide lymphocytes that can deal with potential foreign substances.

☺ In 1987, at the State University of New York, it was found immune activity was lower on days of negative mood and higher on days with positive mood. A positive mood can be measured by amount of laughter activity.

☺ Other Researchers at Western New England College found that people showed an increased concentration of immune substances after viewing a funny video.

☺ Herb Lefcourt, from the University of Waterloo, found that subjects who tested strong for appreciation and utilization of humour had higher levels of a particular immune substance after viewing a funny video than subjects who tested weak. They laughed more and hence the levels of immune activity were higher.

I could go on. The research that is available about the beneficial effects of laughter strongly supports our intuitive understanding that laughter is important. If laughter is so good for us, and thinking of work as play can give us more ways of finding laughter in our daily grind then we should be able to go into any office and notice employees laughing and playing as they do their work. We should indeed all be larking about as it is good for our health and our creativity. But we are not.

How do we stop ourselves from laughing?

We stop ourselves from using laughter because of  our limiting beliefs.

We hold an unconscious belief that it is not appropriate to laugh at work. If we laugh and play then we are not professional. Let me tell you about some of the beliefs that lurk below the simple comment ‘can you keep the noise down? We are trying to get some work done here’.

Laughter barrier 1: “Why are you laughing? It’s not that funny”

We stop ourselves from laughing by making the assumption that we must have a conscious reason to laugh. The reality is that most conversational laughter is spontaneous. The majority of laughter is conversational and not in response to humour. Thus we can say, that if we focus our attention on increasing the kind of laughter that naturally occurs in conversation we are helping our body remain healthy.

Robert Provine has found that most laughter has little to do with jokes or funny stories. The vast majority of laughs follow mundane statements such as “It was nice meeting you, too” or, “Can I join you?” which do not meet our ‘traditional standards for humour’. Only 10 to 20 per cent follows a punch line. One of the key features of conversational laughter is that it occurs in speech but is not randomly spread throughout the speech stream. It has a pattern. For example, Provine says, the speaker and the audience rarely interrupt the phrase structure of speech with laughter. The relationship between laughter and speech is similar to punctuation in written communication.

Provine’s study reveals other clues about laughter in human communication. An interesting but counterintuitive finding is that the average speaker laughs about 46 percent more often than the audience. Find yourself an audience and just talk. Conversational laughter seems to account for most of adult laughter and it is the kind of laughter that we should be encouraging in ourselves and others to gain the physiological and psychological benefits we have discussed.

Laughter Barrier 2: “That’s enough, let’s get back to work!”

If we are laughing we are not working. Laughter not only helps us deal with stress and keeps our immune system healthy, but it also oxygenates our bodies.

If we laugh while we work, we are more likely to get better results for ourselves and for our organization. To say nothing of the higher motivational levels of a work force that feels free to lark about as part of working towards the goals of the organization. I recently heard from a department head that gave an employee a bonus for ‘increasing the morale of the team’. When asked what did the employee do, he said ‘she has a way to get us all to laugh when things are going terribly wrong. This helps us get out of problems quicker and work better together as a team.’

I wish that more managers were so enlightened. Compare this instead with the recent example of an employee who was dismissed from her job for using the Internet to book her holiday. No play in that workplace! I wonder what their employee retention and absenteeism levels are. Stress makes people ill, those of us who run organizations must remember this. We have a duty of care towards our employees. We should encourage constructive ways of dealing with stress.

Laugher is one of those ways when it occurs naturally between people and is not forced upon them.

We must ask how can we support it, not how can we ‘make’ them laugh more. You cannot ‘make’ people laugh if you want the laughter to be health giving. You can only encourage natural laughter by living your work day as if laughing matters to you. You have to become the change that you want to see around you. If others see you use laughter constructively, they will learn to do more of it in their own working lives. But most of all, particularly if you are in a senior position, they will learn that they have permission to do what comes naturally. This will lead to more motivated, healthier and creative employees. And people need both their health and creativity in order to cope with an ever-changing environment and ever-increasing demands.

Next time you find yourself larking about remember that laugher keeps us healthy and creative. But why wait until laughter finds you? Find below some ways in which you can find it more often in your working life.

My key message is that you have to learn to be laughter-independent, free from the barriers that you have unquestioningly taken on from a working culture that requires that laughter be associated with inefficiency and trivia.

You can choose to associate laughter with efficiency and creativity.

Leaders who intuitively understand the importance of laughter use it as a tool for motivation and enhanced performance. A recent headline in The Financial Times, ‘Fun At work, laughter makes everyone feel good’ , the article discusses how leadership, which can occur at all levels of the organization, can be said to be enlightened when it encourages laughter in order to ‘break potentially monotonous routines, to raise the feel-good factor and, importantly, to maintain morale and efficiency in areas when it is all too easy to have one’s enthusiasm sapped’ The ‘Observer’ recently reported on new research findings that also support what we intuitively know yet often suppress at work. An atmosphere of play and laughter correlates positively with creativity and innovation. If people are allowed to use ‘larking about’ as a way of thinking they come up with more ideas!

These ideas can often save money and significantly contribute to the organization. Laughing matters because it is one of the key motivational factors in the workforce and we should encourage it if we want better performance.

Become laughter-independent

☺ Keep a record of what makes you laugh and share it with others daily. Make sure that you describe the experience and rather than evaluate it. Don’t put yourself or others down

☺ Learn to give yourself and others permission to laugh for no reason at all

☺ Know that at times it can help to mark your experience as ‘this is play’. You can be full of laughter and thorough in your work and so can others

☺ Notice when you judge yourself and others negatively when laughter is present in a conversation. Stop it immediately. You are harming your physical and mental health

☺ Have a way of practicing play for the sake of play. So often we turn our play into work instead. We feel that we have to run that marathon and win. The purpose becomes the only focus and the process one for which shortcuts have to be found in order to get to the end. Just like the monkeys, we perform poorly but remain fixated on that banana.

☺ Learn ways to control your mental focus so that you can find the comic in the tragic. This is the essence of the process of reframing, a key life skill to develop for use within work and outside that enables us to maintain a flexible mind-set.

☺ Get in the habit of saying ‘This is not funny, but it could be’.

☺ Always ask of a situation ‘What else could this mean?’ This teaches to be flexible in your thinking and connect non-habitual realms of experience together, which can more easily lead you to healthy laughter.

I leave you with a quote from John Morreal,

‘For the person who can laugh amusement is valuable not only as a means but as an end, just as any aesthetic experience is. He will not only be amused more often than the serious person, but will enjoy moments of amusement for their own sake. Such person will often have practical concerns, of course, and will work as well as play. And yet he will not be locked into a practical frame of mind – even while working he will retain his ability to occasionally step back and laugh at the incongruities of life which we encounter everyday. This involves flexibility and openness. In part this flexibility comes from the realization that what is important is relative to the situation someone is in and to his point of view.’

May you find many ways to stop working and start ‘plerking’ and what better way to practice than DS106 #4life?

Resources used in this article

  1. Funes, M. ‘Laughing Matters’ Gill and Macmillan. Buy for 1pence on Amazon, the format may be dated but the ideas are timeless
  2. Koestler A. ‘The act of creation’, 1964. A classic book about the importance of laughter in the creative process A good book to read about the detail of this research is P. Wooten’s ‘Compassionate Laughter’. Its focus is mainly on the use of laughter and humour by health professional. It has a good physiology section.
  3. Financial Times, June 16 1999.
  4. The Observer, 18 April 1999.