American firms have started hiring 'humour consultants' to keep the workplace happy - and more productive
irst there was restructuring; then there was downsizing. Now America has devised another way of making as much money as possible from business, and another breed of management consultant to go with it. This time it's laughter and the expert is the humour consultant. These are people who can charge $5,000 an hour to come and tell you that laughter really is good for your business. As you read this, entire departments of companies are being locked in anonymous hotel rooms to watch old American TV shows, with laugh tracks to help them reach a satisfying belly laugh with their colleagues.

This might strike you as funny (that is, funny peculiar), and a rip-off on a par with Feng Shui - which the comic Jonathan Hardy describes as "taken from the Chinese for 'Move the sofa out a bit, that'll be pounds 200 please'." As the stand-up comic Junior Simpson puts it, "They'll pay $5,000 for laughter consultancy? I want that gig!" But on reflection, he thinks it reflects a simple philosophy: "If you're laughing, you're happier than if you're not laughing."

Yet there are scientists and doctors too who will assure you that laughter has a very important role both in keeping us healthy mentally and physically, and in establishing our place in the social ladder. The story behind the Robbie Williams movie, Patch Adams, (based on a real doctor, who spoke last month at the annual meeting of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor) is only one example of the way that even quite serious scientists have realised that if we're making happy noises, then we probably are happy.

You don't have to look to the US for confirmation. Here in Britain, Graeme Garden, who before appearing in the TV show The Goodies qualified as a doctor, knows exactly why laughter at work, or indeed anywhere, can be good for you.

"There is some evidence that smiling and laughing do release endorphins and hormones that make people feel good. If you feel truly happy, that is kind of the point to life, so laughter is definitely to be recommended," he says. Laughter therapy - the practice of getting your staff to laugh aloud more - should at least be more relaxing than weekends spent tramping around the Brecon Beacons. For around 20 years Garden (like another well-known comedian, John Cleese) has made management training videos which have sold to companies around the world.

"What the videos aim to do is take a management situation, like a budget- setting meeting or making someone redundant, and show how to do it and how not to do it. Hopefully, managers will laugh at the ways not to do it because they recognise the bad techniques. Then they will realise how they need to improve."

But, as he points out, wild-eyed managers who instruct their staff to laugh spontaneously every five minutes are doomed to failure. "You cannot force anyone to laugh any more than you can force them to fall in love with you," he says.

It also might actually undermine the boss's authority, according to Robert Provine, a psychologist and neurobiologist from the University of Maryland. He used to be a world expert on yawning. You might not be surprised to hear he has since moved on to study laughter. But the questions he asks are much the same as he used to ask about yawning: namely, why do we do it?

"We found that most laughter is not a response to jokes," he explains. "When you hear what people say just before they laugh, it usually has nothing to do with a formal effort at humour, such as a joke. It's just everyday comments like 'Gotta go now, ha-ha-ha!'." Shunning the laboratory, because he thinks that doing research there on such a social phenomenon makes too many assumptions, he and his researchers instead took to the streets: "We'd go to public places and find people in groups. When we'd hear a group of people laughing we would eavesdrop and record who'd just spoken before the laughter occurred. One of the surprises was that speakers laughed more than the person being spoken to. This goes against the folk wisdom, and looking at comedy performances as a model of laughter isn't appropriate - because typically you have a deadpan, non-laughing speaker, the comedian, talking to an audience that responds. That's not true in everyday life." His team were able to put a precise figure on how much more speakers laugh than audiences: 46 per cent. "It's quite a big effect," says Professor Provine.

But the real clue to power in the office comes when you analyse what happens when the sexes are laughing. "Both males and females laugh more when a male is talking to them than when a female is talking to them." Then you get on to the dangerous territory: what does laughing with, or at, the boss indicate? "Laughing with the boss would be an acknowledgement of authority. But you wouldn't laugh at the boss." Except perhaps when you learn how much they are paying humour consultants to buck you up.

But how much should a workforce laugh? Viv Gee is a former tax assessor and now a comic who lectures at Britain's first stand-up comedy university course at Strathclyde University. "We used to laugh a lot in the office, but only when the boss wasn't there. Allowing a little of that can be a good thing."

Professor Provine details one example of how laughter can run out of control in his new book, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. The event has entered the annals of science, where people still talk in hushed tones of the Tanganyikan Laughter Epidemic of 1962.

It began with two girls, who one day started laughing hysterically. Soon groups of children at their school were laughing uncontrollably. Eventually the school had to be closed down, but the giggles spread through the district, only subsiding six months later. Which only goes to prove what it says on the ads for the Robin Williams's film: laughter is contagious.

Earl Okin and Junior Simpson perform at the Leicester Comedy Festival tonight. Okin is at Bar Gaudi, Leicester, at 8pm and Simpson is at Loughborough Town Hall at 8pm. 'Laughter: A Scientific Investigation', by Professor Robert Provine, is published by Faber next year.