Summer 1988 // Volume 26 // Number 2 // Forum // 2FRM1

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You Don't Have To Be Funny To Use Humor


Peter Warnock
District Director and Professor
Florida Cooperative Extension Service
University of Florida-Gainesville

"Indicate the slightest willingness to laugh and jokes will walk right up to you, delivered by subordinates, peers or even the boss. Look for it and expect it."1 So says Kiechel, one of a growing number of "humor consultants" who teach managers, teachers, doctors, and workers from all walks of life to take their jobs seriously and themselves lightly. Humor is no longer considered a frivolous pursuit, as research in the behavioral, social, and medical sciences has revealed a significant relationship between laughter and stress reduction, productivity, and a healthy immune system.

Because working for Extension is clearly a demanding job, a colleague and I became curious about how Extension workers use humor. We asked about 75 of our colleagues to tell us how they used humor and then categorized their responses as shown in Figure 1. Extension workers reported that the key factor in their use of a particular type of humor was the degree of risk. Injecting humor into tense work situations can be risky because it can backfire, leading to loss of face and hurt feelings. It also became evident that the majority of Extension staff were using humor by laughing easily with themselves and others. Obviously, Extension workers don't have to become clowns or comedians, but we could benefit by trying to look at "the lighter side" of our jobs.

There are many good reasons to encourage humor in the Extension workplace. To begin with, it relieves tension. More relaxed Extension workers, like surgeons, athletes, and politicians, will consistently outperform uptight counterparts.

Laughter is also the shortest distance between two people. Human differences can be mediated by mirth and play. Jealousy, bickering, turf and status differences between county and state staff, home economics and agriculture, or just in our own offices can become less burdensome over a joke or good laugh.

The Ha Ha-Ah! connection is well-documented in the literature of creative problem solving and decision making.2 Laughter loosens fixed positions in the mind. In both humor and creative thinking, a person's intellect is confronted with something beyond the ordinary which is seen as an amusing or unique idea. Playfulness and laughter will condition our minds to perceive ordinary information in unusual patterns and connections. Equally important, it enables us to give new ideas a fair trial. Imaginative Extension workers are not closed-minded; rather they apply the adage, "Give me two good reasons why it can work."

Humor may have the added bonus of improving our health. Selye discovered early in his research that stress caused biochemical changes in animals and humans. He found in tense situations that adrenal glands would oversecrete, endorphins (pain-killing compounds) were produced, and the immune system's T-cells decreased in number. Current medical research is looking at laughter as a way to increase T-cells and strengthen the immune system.3

Cousins, a writer and former editor of Saturday Review, popularized the effect of laughter on human health in his best selling book, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient.4 He claims to have survived cancer by ingesting large doses of Vitamin C, maintaining a positive attitude, and watching Laurel and Hardy movies and other classic comedies during his recovery. He went on to become adjunct professor at the UCLA School of Medicine.

Finally, hard-driving Extension workers can use a joke, funny story, or cartoon at any time or place to relax and momentarily clear their over-burdened minds. As Joubert said in 1560, laughter is a "Convenient way to loosen the reins of our minds."5 Both our mental and physical health will be restored by these frequent respites.

Extension workers who laugh easily and encourage humor in others are contributing to employee productivity and wellness. When we take a minute to smile on hearing that Woody Allen is not afraid to die, but he doesn't want to be there when it happens, it bodes well for our health and ability to achieve excellence on the job.

Figure 1

Figure 1. How Extension workers use humor.


1. Walter Kiechel, III, "Executives Ought to be Funnier," Fortune (December 17, 1983), pp. 205-08.

2. Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation ( New York: The MacMillan Company, 1964), pp. 27-35..

3. Richard Trubo, "Stress and Disease: Cellular Evidence Hints at Therapy," Medical World News (January 26, 1987) p. 39.

4. Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient ( New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1979).

5. Laurent Joubert, Treatise on Laughter (Auburn: The University of Alabama Press, 1980), p. 95. [Translation]