Why Laughter Can Make You More Productive at Work

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Being inundated with bad news and working from home, for some alone, during the coronavirus pandemic has made it harder than ever for workers to find the time for laughter, but experts argue that it can really make a difference when it comes to productivity. 

Working from home, at least partially, looks likely to be here to stay even as many countries gradually ease Covid-19 restrictions. 

While the benefits of hybrid working on a more permanent basis have been well-established, it does also mean less time spent with colleagues in the long term and fewer chances to blow off steam by joking around in the office. 

And a year of isolation from friends and family, as well as co-workers, has contributed to feelings of burnout

So, although making time for laughter might not seem like a priority, experts point out that its effects on the brain can not only boost our mood but also our productivity. 

How laughter helps the brain

Daniel Sgroi, an economics professor at the U.K.'s University of Warwick, told CNBC via telephone that laughter can trigger the activation of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, both of which are considered mood-boosting hormones. 

Sgroi explained that laughter "fast tracks networks in the brain to help you concentrate and focus," working as the equivalent of a productivity boost. However, he stressed that the laughter has to be genuine. 

"There is some evidence in neuroscience that just forcing yourself to laugh can generate some of these effects but then they're much less pronounced than if it's a genuine procedure," Sgroi said. 

Research that Sgroi co-authored, published in 2015, found evidence of a link between happiness and productivity. One of the techniques used in his study was to use comedy to make participants laugh and be happier, which he said boosted productivity by up to 12%. 

The link between happiness and productivity has been around for a while, Sgroi told CNBC, but it's only been more recently discovered that "people who are happy, work harder." 

"So it's almost like being happy generates more time," he said, explaining that someone who is happy might be able to do in one hour what it takes someone who is less happy to do in an hour and 20 minutes. 

Meanwhile, Sophie Scott, director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, told CNBC via telephone that laughter also helps to reduce the level of adrenaline and cortisol in the body, which are known as the anxiety and stress hormones. 

"You get an increased uptake of endorphins when you've been laughing and those are the body's natural painkillers," she added. 

Importantly, Scott said, humans seem to use endorphins as a bonding mechanism. She explained that people tend to do things that are associated with the release of endorphins, like laughing, with other people, so these activities are actually "reinforcing your sense of being affiliated with those people." 

For jobs where people work in a team, laughter is a "very good way of reinforcing the connections between that team and at the same time, reducing stress," Scott said. 

Making time for laughter

Neuroscientist Sabina Brennan told CNBC via video call that keeping a "laughter stash" of things you find funny to tap into when needed can be helpful for getting that boost.

"I think an important point to make is that one of the signs of chronic stress is a loss of a sense of humor and it can steal that sense of humor and rob you of the ability to see the funny side of life," she said.

Brennan highlighted how "humor does help us cope with the unthinkable," which she suggested could be one reason why people sometimes find themselves laughing at inappropriate times.

"My own theory around that is it's like that pressure cooker release, that your brain knows that 'hold on, you're dealing with something actually horrific,'" she said.

Sgroi pointed to the use of "mood induction procedures" in behavioral science to prompt physical reactions like laughter. Watching videos, listening to music, reading a joke, talking to a funny friend or having a recording that makes you laugh, can all help to "generate the mood that you need," he said.

However, Sgroi warned against over exposure to these types of prompts. "Human beings have an amazing ability to habituate — so what was funny 10 minutes ago, loses its comedic value once you've heard it two or three times in a row," he said.

Scott also emphasized the importance of making time for laughter at work.

"So think about maybe some more formal structures — like one my colleagues, her lab would meet every week and play Pictionary online, just because it was ridiculous and everybody would laugh and all that matters is you've got a reason to be laughing," she said.

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