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This Surprising Trait Can Make You More Successful and a Better Leader

By: Kathleen Elkins  |  Last Updated: January 29, 2021

A little bit of humor can go a long way.

Research shows that humor can boost creativity, bolster resilience, help you appear more competent and even make you live longer. 

Consider these stats: “In leadership, when people use humor at work, they are 23% more respected and they are also seen as more competent and confident,” explains Dr. Jennifer Aaker, the General Atlantic Professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and co-author of “Humor, Seriously.”

“It doesn’t even need to be good humor,” she adds. “It just has to be not inappropriate humor.” 

When it comes to innovation, studies show that teams are more than twice as likely to solve a creativity challenge if they laugh together first. 

“When you laugh together first, things shift neurologically,” Aaker explains on an episode of “The David Bach Show.” “The brain releases a cocktail of healthy hormones — dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin — and that changes not only how we feel — more calm and confident and resourceful — but how others perceive us, as more influential and trustworthy and likable.”

Another study finds that a sense of humor can even lower mortality rates. Norwegian researchers asked people, “Do you have a sense of humor?” People who said “yes” or “no” were divided into two groups. Then, the research team tracked them for 15 years. “The individuals who said ‘yes’ lived eight years longer and were 30% more resistant to severe disease,” says Aaker.

In short, humor is a powerful tool. But what if you’re just not funny? According to Aaker, it’s not that simple: “One of the biggest myths is you either think you’re funny or you’re not, but that’s not true.”

It’s true that not everyone is funny in the same way, but everyone has a natural humor style.  

After years of running studies, Aaker and her colleagues have found that there are four primary humor styles: 

  1. The Stand-Up. This is the classically funny person who is a natural entertainer, expressive, bold and not afraid to cross a line to get a laugh. 
  2. The Sweetheart. This type is earnest and honest, and avoids any humor that could hurt someone’s feelings. They don’t necessarily need the spotlight and their humor often flies under the radar.
  3. The Sniper. This type is edgy, sarcastic and nuanced. They aren’t afraid to ruffle any feathers when they use humor and it can be hard to get them to smile or laugh.
  4. The Magnet. This type is affiliative, expressive and warm. They avoid controversial humor and radiate charisma.

To find out what your humor style is, take the Humor Typology Quiz that Aaker and her team created.

“One of the biggest myths is you either think you’re funny or you’re not, but that’s not true.”

While we all have a natural style of humor, as we get older and enter the workforce, we start laughing and smiling less — we fall off “the humor cliff,” Aaker says. She cites data from analytics company Gallup, which asked 1.6 million people, “Did you smile or laugh yesterday?” The data shows that people aged 16, 18 and 20 tend to say “yes.” But around age 23, the number of people who respond “yes” plummets and it doesn’t come back up until age 70.

As you get older, “you start to then think, ‘I’m not funny,’” says Aaker, who has been teaching a class called “Humor: Serious Business” at the Stanford Graduate School of Business for the past five years. “But you were [funny] when you were four! The average four-year-old laughs 300 times a day — the average 40-year-old laughs that many times in 2.5 months.” 

What happens is, we enter the professional workforce and think work is serious — and then we start taking ourselves seriously. But as science shows, humor can be an extremely beneficial tool. 

The good news is, we all have the ability to bring more humor and levity into our lives. The simplest way to do so is to “be more generous with laughter,” says Aaker. “I know that sounds either obvious or tautological but, neurologically, what happens when you authentically laugh with someone is that your brain chemistry shifts. There’s a reason why people are 30% more resistant to disease when they just report having a sense of humor.

“So look for people laughing around you and join in for both of your sakes.”

For more tips on how to weave humor into your everyday life, listen to Episode 27 of “The David Bach Show” featuring Aaker and check out “Humor Seriously,” the book she co-authored with Naomi Bagdonas.

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