Your Brain on Laughter: How to Get Office Humor Right

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Ensuring humor connects colleagues — and doesn’t offend — is tricky. Here’s how to joke effectively.

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Humor’s a funny thing. It’s the ultimate icebreaker — a near-miraculous social lubricant that can unite a roomful of co-workers in a spirit of camaraderie. Laughter triggers a release of chemicals in the brain that can lower stress, build trust, and boost productivity. And studies show that taking a short break from work to watch a funny YouTube clip or listen to a joke can make it easier to persevere when working on a difficult task.  

But humor in the workplace can be risky. When it works, it has important benefits for both teams and individuals, making colleagues feel connected and helping individuals present themselves as competent and confident. When it doesn’t work, it can be dangerous. Stale punchlines that earn half-hearted chuckles are one thing, but inappropriate jokes — those perceived as offensive or hurtful by peers or supervisors — can damage your status within the organization or even lead to an unplanned departure.

So, how can you use humor effectively?

Harness the power of social threat and reward

The human brain is extremely sensitive to social threats and rewards, and each can have a powerful impact on our ability to focus, collaborate, and communicate.

When we perceive a social interaction as positive — such as when a manager praises our work during a performance review — it prompts a reward response in the brain that promotes learning and growth. When we perceive that an interaction hurts our social standing, it triggers a threat state in the brain — a fight-or-flight response that interferes with our ability to think clearly and be creative.

What makes humor so tricky is it can fall into either category. When tensions are high during a team interaction, you can use humor to make people feel less threatened, shifting them from a threat state to a reward state. This frees cognitive resources to help us solve problems and make decisions. In many ways, the experience of hearing a joke is similar to that of having an insight — that “aha” moment when you suddenly make a connection, spot a pattern, or realize the solution to a long-vexing problem. When a joke lands and incites genuine laughter, it triggers a sudden boost of energy — just like an insight.

But when humor misses the mark — or worse, comes off as offensive — it’s processed by the brain similarly to physical pain or fear. It can trigger a sense of threat in one or more of the five primary domains of social interaction: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Cruel jokes, or jokes that elicit laughter at the expense of another person, can threaten a person’s status or relatedness. Sexist, racist, or homophobic jokes, meanwhile, can elicit a sense of disgust and threaten a person’s sense of fairness.

So what’s the right way to be funny?

The trick with humor is that it’s not just about how you approach jokes. It’s about how you approach people, which is why understanding social motivations can give you a better sense of how your audience will react.

You can also set your humor up for success by understanding the four styles of humor as defined by Norwegian researchers in the Humor Styles Questionnaire.

  • Affiliative humor creates social connections among people. Jokes focus on shared experiences and commonalities, rather than singling out individuals or dwelling on differences. By strengthening camaraderie within a group, affiliative humor builds a sense of relatedness and boosts subjective well-being.
  • Self-enhancing humor is a clever way to increase your status within a group — by seeming to lower it. A supervisor might use this type of humor to put employees at ease. Joking about missing the train or having a moment of absentmindedness — indicating that you too are capable of making mistakes — makes you seem more human and approachable. The ability to laugh at yourself fosters an environment of well-being where employees are encouraged to approach setbacks with levity and positivity.
  • Self-defeating humor is the darker, more negative cousin of self-enhancing humor. Employees who put themselves down may be doing so to preempt criticism (or even bullying) from supervisors or peers — essentially attacking themselves before others can do it, at the expense of their well-being.
  • Aggressive humor involves put-downs or insults directed specifically at one or more individuals, and it’s toxic in a work environment, increasing loneliness and aggression. In a setting that should be about building bridges between people, aggressive humor damages relatedness in an attempt to decrease the status of others. Even though some teams may appear to thrive on toxic negativity, a work environment where inappropriate jokes are the norm can lead to turnover, lack of trust, and poor performance.

The healthiest workplaces are those that promote affiliative and self-enhancing humor, steering clear of self-defeating and especially aggressive humor. Science has yet to determine the perfect way to engineer a joke, but by understanding the role of humor in social interactions, you can deploy it in a way that maximizes benefits for yourself and your team.

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