Laughology: A little funny business

A former comedian is on a serious mission to instil humour into our working lives – but this isn't about creating more David Brents, she tells Nick Harding

Have you heard the one about the CEO and the comedian? No? Well, bosses and humour don't always mix. Their attempts to use laughter as a motivational tool, or to garner popularity, often fall somewhere between excruciating embarrassment and out-and-out inappropriateness. "Big" Nev Wilshire from BBC's fly-on-the-wall documentary The Call Centre is a case in point.

But when harnessed properly, humour and laughter can be powerful tools in and out of the boardroom. And that's where Stephanie Davies comes in. As a former stand-up comic, she is now a behavioural expert and founder of Laughology, a unique enterprise that uses the science of laughter and humour to develop psychology-based programmes that help people in a range of settings, several of which are the boardrooms of blue-chip companies.

Davies works with CEOs, executive teams and workforces in areas such as culture change, creating happy workplaces, staff engagement, communication and presentation skills, and executive coaching. Outside of the boardroom, she has applied her skills to a variety of groundbreaking projects. These include creating the country's first happy-centred school, developing an initiative to encourage resilience and community spirit in a divided area of Bradford and running a rehabilitation programme for service users in a secure mental-health unit.

When it comes to teaching CEOs to be engaging, Davies' work is serious. "Language and the way we use it has a huge bearing on how we are perceived," she says. "Some executives use lingo, acronyms and corporate bullshit, which are all inaccessible to normal people. One of the most important aspects of leadership is connecting with people and to achieve this you need to reframe the language you use. It is archaic to be talking to people in old-style leadership speak. Look at Barack Obama, he'll often use humour and the common touch to get a message across."

To get business leaders to let go of their reliance on corporate speak, Davies draws on her days as a stand-up. "I get them to stand up and tell a funny story about something that happened to them, in front of their peers. Many squirm at first. But suddenly their whole method of communication changes, they become upbeat, open and, most importantly they start to use simplistic, accessible language. It's a powerful way of getting people to realise how to deliver a message in a more human way. It's not about turning people into David Brent, it's about turning them into Barack Obama."

Davies draws on a range of scientific studies into the effects that laughter and humour have on the brain and body, and uses the data to devise simple self-development practices for real-life situations. Her book, Laughology: Improve Your Life with the Science of Laughter, has won plaudits from academics. It demonstrates how people can take control of their emotions and use humour as a coping mechanism.

"I started Laughology seven years ago because I believe we all have the right to be happy, resilient human beings. We are all born with the ability to have a sense of humour but developing one is a skill we learn and we can continue to learn through life." Davies studied in the US with the health activist Patch Adams, who used humour to address health and social issues and was made famous by the eponymous biopic.

Davies distinguishes between laughter and humour. Humour is a cognitive process. As individuals, we learn what is funny and what is not, and develop our own unique sense of humour. Humour will be relative to our experiences, it develops through childhood and into adulthood. "Very simplistically, we process information about the environment around us and that creates thoughts. Every thought will create a feeling and those feelings are caused by chemical reactions in the brains, so if we can interrupt a negative thought or distract ourselves from a situation briefly using humour, it can change the way we feel. Humour changes the chemical make-up in the brain. It is the basis of how cognitive behaviour therapy works."

Because the brain constantly evolves, creating new neural pathways through the process of neuroplasticity, Davies maintains that we can teach our brains to be happier and more positive and as a result live less stressful and healthier lives. Laughter, she says, is the physical manifestation of humour, although it is not always linked to humour; it can occur as a result of shock, nerves or embarrassment. It is an indication of the way we are feeling. People learn to use laughter in social situations. It is also a powerful communication tool and can be used to display a range of emotions.

"People use laughter to gain social acceptance. There is lots of research which shows that people laugh more at their bosses and that women laugh more at jokes told by men they feel attracted to," Davies says. "Many stand-ups have deep issues and they get hooked on receiving laughter from crowds. Essentially, they go out on stage and try and make people like them."

Laughter has a range of physical and psychological benefits. "It releases dopamine and serotonin – neurochemicals with beneficial effects – it increases heart rate, regulates blood flow, makes you more alert and can increase the levels of antibodies in the bloodstream," Davies says. By developing psychological toolkits that enable people to harness these benefits, Davies has been able to create pioneering initiatives in the public sector. One involves working with service users at a secure mental-health unit. "I was invited after a presentation I gave at a conference. The specialist staff were initially sceptical of my approach when I presented to them. One commented: 'Laughter's too risky.' I understood what they meant and, apart from anything else, there's a safety issue in an environment like that. You're dealing with sometimes fragile people. But laughter can help people in a huge number of ways. It provides 'a-ha' moments. It encourages people to realise they are intelligent enough to get that joke, and it enables people to connect with each other." The course is now a 10-session one-hour-a-week programme with a booklet given out each week.

In her book, Davies offers a range of simple techniques that readers can use to bring more laughter and humour into their lives. "Most importantly, we need to know what makes us laugh," she says. She also points out that the language we use to frame our world will have an impact on how positive we are and how much we laugh. "If you constantly use negative language, you will feel negative. If you make an effort to replace negative words with positive ones, in speech as well as in your internal dialogue, you will think and feel more positive."

Laughter can even help people control their weight and become healthier. A study in the US found that people who watched funny movies showed changes in levels of hormones regulating their appetite. "Laughter also works on the mechanisms in the brain that make us eat too much of the wrong things," Davies says. "There is a major link between our emotions and the food choices we make. Many people make unhealthy food choices when they are down, tired or stressed. Laughter can act as a distraction to the cravings we because it causes the brain to release serotonin, a hormone sometimes described as nature's appetite suppressant."

'Laughology: Improve Your Life with the Science of Laughter' by Stephanie Davies is published by Crown House Publishing and available from Amazon

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before