The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.
Most of us are aware that laughter is relaxing, and that humor makes the learning process much more fun. There’s social science research that students whose professors bring humor into the classroom have greater retention of the material, and those professors also tend to have far greater student engagement overall. (It’s interesting to note that in order for this to be the case, the humor must be relevant to the topic at hand. Just generally “being funny” doesn’t have the same impact.)
During my speaking engagements on neuroscience and coaching, I love to bring in humorous examples, cartoons and an overall sense of lightness. I do this because it’s both my personality to have fun no matter what I am doing, and because I know at times people can get intimidated by a topic requiring so many six-syllable words. (On that note, here’s my tip of the day: If you do nothing else, tell your clients you are engaging their brains in positive neuroplasticity during the coaching process. This will make their left hemispheres quite impressed with how smart you are, and you’ll be able to get away with almost anything.)
I also typically use a dose of appropriate humor in my coaching sessions, because I have found over the years that Bill Cosby was right when he said:
“Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.”
Recently, however, I got curious about the impact of humor on our brain and biochemistry. I wanted to know where laughter can be found in the brain, and also why humor helps us shift things, reduce stress and even heal (The late Dr. Norman Cousins, who, among other things, was a researcher into the biochemistry of human emotions, credited laughter to helping him fight cancer. His regimen? Hours and hours of old Three Stooges movies).
The question of where laughter is located in the brain does not have a clear-cut answer, but it does seem to have something to do with activation of a certain area of the pre-frontal cortex, (PFC) the most highly developed part of our brains. This may help explain why laughter can help shift things so effectively and easily. When we activate our PFC we can actually begin to think and not simply react. Laughter has also been shown to reduce biochemical markers of stress, specifically catecholamines and cortisol. It boosts the immune system and a good belly laugh will increase your heart rate and give you a bit of a work out!
Laughter is also a powerful social connector. According to a 2010 article by the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute, “Laughter is thought to have predated human speech, perhaps by millions of years, and may have helped our early ancestors clarify intentions during social interactions. But as language began to evolve, laughter may also have provided an emotional context for conversations—a signal of acceptance.” Laughing with our clients creates bonding and trust. When we laugh with someone, we are evolutionarily primed to feel safe.
In looking at laughter from the perspective of consciousness as well as neuroscience, I have seen that those coaches who appear to calibrate at higher levels of awareness have an interesting ability to hold lightness and humor concurrent with seriousness and depth. The humor they bring is in the context of deep respect for the challenges their client is facing, and not intended to bring the client out of their experience. This is an important point — while making a joke of things might lighten the mood, the coach also needs to know when the client needs to be brought more deeply in to their experience.
Thus, like everything in coaching, even laughter isn’t the “right” answer, but it is a wonderful tool. And on that note, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite scientists–someone who definitely knew not to take himself too seriously.