Humor, Seriously

Title: Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life

Author: Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas

Completed: March 2023 (Full list of books)

Overview: A fun look at how and why humor can show up in business settings with research to back up their statements. They have clearly spent a lot of time studying humor and talking with experts. As someone who thinks most situations have at least one small aspect to laugh about, it was wonderful to learn this sort of attitude can help build community and comradery.


  • when we refuse to take ourselves so seriously, we relieve the stress standing in the way of serious work, create more meaningful connections with our colleagues, and open our minds to more innovative solutions.
  • we’ll explore four distinct styles of humor and help you identify yours. Because who doesn’t love a good typology?
  • As kids, we laugh all the time. The average four-year-old laughs as many as three hundred times per day. (The average forty-year-old, by comparison, laughs three hundred times every two and a half months.) Then we grow up, enter the workforce, and suddenly become “serious and important people,” trading laughter for ties and pantsuits.
  • We don’t need more “professionalism” in our workplaces. Instead, we need more of ourselves, and more human connection—especially as in-person meetings are replaced by video chats and more relationships are sustained entirely by email. Often, all it takes is a hint of levity to shift a moment, or a relationship, from transactional and robotic to relational and authentic.
  • Levity is a mindset—an inherent state of receptiveness to (and active seeking of) joy.
  • Humor channels levity—just as exercise channels movement—toward a specific goal. We all have natural preferences in each realm: You might prefer yoga, soccer, or cycling, just as your sense of humor is drawn to certain styles of jokes, impersonations, or physical gags. Humor, like exercise, is something you can hone—something that requires skill and effort.
  • Comedy is the practice of humor as a structured discipline. Like sport, comedy requires a dexterous command of technique and a great deal of training. Stand-up, improv, and sketch each require their own set of specialized skills, just as basketball, soccer, and hockey require different types of athletic ability. Only a select few compete at the professional level; not everyone wants to be on this level, and not everyone can.
  • They become more generous with their laughter. They notice opportunities for humor that would otherwise pass them by. The mindset of looking for reasons to be delighted becomes a habit.
  • researchers Karen O’Quin and Joel Aronoff asked participants to negotiate with an “art dealer” (research assistant) over the purchase price of a piece of art. Half of the research assistants made a final offer that was significantly above the participants’ last bid, stating simply “My final offer is X.” The other half offered the same amount, but said with a smile, “My final offer is X…and I’ll throw in my pet frog.” Here’s the kicker: For the final offers accompanied by the pet frog line, buyers were willing to pay, on average, an 18 percent higher price. What’s more, the buyers later reported enjoying the task more and feeling less tension with the seller.
  • a Pew Research poll, showing that viewers of humorous news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report remembered more about current events than people who consumed information from newspapers, cable news, or network news. And in one study, researchers found that people who watched a humorous film clip before taking a brief short-term memory test recalled more than twice as much information as people who took the same test after simply sitting doing nothing for the same duration.
  • John Sherman says, “If people are laughing, it means they’re paying attention.”
  • As the abolitionist clergyman Henry Ward Beecher noted: “A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble on the road.” We all need a buffer against life’s shake-ups, big or small, and humor is one of the best we’ve got.
    • 2. CREATE CONTRAST Contrast—juxtaposition between two or more elements—is another tool in your comedic toolbelt.
    • 3. USE SPECIFICS If there is one thing you’ll learn fast from pitching jokes in an Upright Citizens Brigade sketch writing room (aside from the fact that your teacher, Will Hines, inevitably has the best pitch every time), it’s that specificity, detail, and color can take a comedic bit from good to great.
    • 4. MAKE ANALOGIES Just as contrast can create humor, so can comparison.
  • In a series of famous studies on direct mail response, professor and author Siegfried Vögele found that 90 percent of people read the postscript before the body of the letter. Meaning that your PS is likely to be your recipient’s first impression, not the last.
  • That’s why he keeps a copy of the CIA’s Simple Sabotage Field Manual, a set of guidelines devised by U.S. government officials to sabotage terrorist organizations from the inside, in his briefcase. Originally developed by the OSS during World War II, the Simple Sabotage Field Manual is a guide for, as the CIA puts it, “teaching people how to do their jobs badly.”
  • a sample of some of the tactics our nation’s best intelligence officers recommend you use to undermine the operations and efficiency of a terrorist cell—or a typical American board meeting: When possible, refer all matters to committees for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large as possible—no fewer than five people. Make speeches. Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Haggle over the precise wording of communications, minutes, resolutions. Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible. Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to reopen the question of the advisability of that decision.
  • In the wise words of the Dalai Lama, “Laughter is good for thinking because when people laugh, it is easier for them to admit new ideas to their minds.”
  • He challenges them to come up with bad ideas. “If I say, ‘Go brainstorm good ideas,’ ” says Teller, “then people will think, ‘Oh, God, everything I say has to be a good idea.’ ” Using the word “good,” he says, puts limits on the way his team thinks. But if he specifically requests “the silliest, stupidest ideas,” people often come up with crazier—and often better—solutions. These brainstorms are full of ludicrous ideas and raucous laughter, but they also yield brilliant results.
  • This degradation of trust in leadership has firmly implanted itself in the minds of employees, too: A 2019 Harvard Business Review survey found that 58 percent of employees trust a complete stranger more than their own boss.
  • The habit of viewing our mistakes through a comic lens can have a meaningful impact on our psychology. Emerging research at Stanford suggests that people who interpret stories from their lives, both positive and negative, as comedies (as opposed to tragedies or dramas) report feeling less stressed and more energetic, challenged, and fulfilled. What’s more, psychologist Dan McAdams argues that we make active “narrative choices” in the stories we tell ourselves as well as the genre or frame we use for those stories.
  • As leadership expert Dana Bilky Asher writes: “We cannot lead if we cannot learn. And yet, our capacity to take in and process new information—to generate new insights and true growth—shuts down in response to the fear of letting people down. Laughter opens us up again.”
  • We all want to have our wins celebrated, but when the acknowledgment feels insincere, our bullshit radar goes off. Unexpected, playful moments of praise or recognition can often be more meaningful than “official” ones because they signal that someone is not only paying attention to what we’re doing well, but cares enough to go out of their way to celebrate it.
  • No wonder one of the first pieces of advice most comedians give to noncomedians is never to start a story with “I have a funny story….” When people perceive that you’re trying to be funny, all of a sudden you have something to prove.
  • Research has shown that a range of environmental factors—from greater employee autonomy over workspace design to elements as simple as plants and bright colors—can promote engagement, productivity, creativity, and well-being. Work by Justin Berg, an organizational psychologist at Stanford University, shows that the “primal mark’’—that is, the first visual cue an employee sees as they generate ideas—anchors the trajectory of novelty and usefulness. When the primal mark is surprising or unusual, creativity often follows.
  • Research has shown that mere exposure to disparaging, identity-based humor is likely to perpetuate prejudice in those who are already predisposed to it. As one study by researchers Robyn Mallett, Thomas Ford, and Julie Woodzicka found, when men who had (in prior tests) been found to hold sexist views10 were told either a series of neutral jokes or a series of sexist jokes;11 those who heard the sexist jokes—relative to those who heard the neutral jokes—reported greater tolerance of gender harassment in the workplace and less remorse after being asked to imagine they had personally harassed a woman.
  • Derogatory humor doesn’t just push boundaries or highlight divisions. It can perpetuate prejudice and impact behavior by those with prejudice views. It further divides.
  • In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love. If you love friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself, and you will have only yourself. —Stephen Colbert
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1 Response to Humor, Seriously

  1. eds says:

    That’s a lot of good stuff between the book covers

    Liked by 1 person

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