It pays to take laughter seriously

Having a laugh relieves stress, saves time and cuts costs, writes Rachelle Thackray
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The Independent Online
ANYONE who has ever let out a nervous laugh in the wrong place will know what opprobrium can result - particularly from an already irate boss. There's a time and a place to laugh; and knowing when and where could enhance your career and reduce the stress in your working life.

This is the claim of Dr Mariana Funes, a cognitive psychologist who, after working with a US laughter therapist, aptly named Annette Goodheart, now hopes to introduce a "culture of laughter" into British companies. According to one US company, introducing the principles have decreased staff sickness days by a half, and increased productivity by 15 per cent.

Dr Funes, who presented her findings to business representatives from several large companies, and who plans to run The Laughing Matters Workshop this summer, says organisations should remember that laughing reduces stress and diffuses tension, saving time and money.

"Adults laugh, on average, 14 times a day. Children laugh, on average, 500 times a day. There may be an argument for behaving more like a child, and connecting with our ability for natural play, in the workplace," she says. This doesn't mean you have to resort to a romper suit, alphabet blocks and a sandpit. It might simply be that you give yourself permission to laugh even when there's no reason.

Dr Funes adds: "I'm interested in innovative approaches to working, and laughter is one aspect of our emotional make-up. The role it has in our ability to learn, think and get a perspective is crucial."

Laughter's healing propensity is well known; as you bellyache, you lose control of your muscles, your diaphragm convulses and your internal organs get a much-needed massage. Your blood pressure will go up, but will then drop to a much lower resting level. In addition, your circulatory system gets a bit of exercise, and the thymus gland - which shrinks when you are under stress - relaxes. Beta-endorphins, the body's painkillers, are also released.

There are several myths about laughter which need dispersing if it's going to be utilised as a stress-reliever, says Dr Funes. One is that you need a reason to laugh; another is that you have to be happy to laugh; and a third is that a sense of humour and laughter are the same thing. "We don't laugh because we're happy; we're happy because we laugh. Laughter has a cathartic effect, and the word 'emotion' means 'to move'."

She encourages employees to be supportive of spontaneous laughter, and even recommends laughing un-spontaneously in certain situations. It's akin to the principle that smiling will make you feel happy if you do it for long enough. "If you don't think it's funny, pretend. Your diaphragm cannot tell the difference between real and fake laughter, and as you fake it, the real one will kick in."

She adds: "The thing that suffers most in the workplace is people's ability to relate; you get your head down and get your work done. It is the gap between who we are and who we think we should be that generates stress, tension and pain. We stop ourselves from laughing and others collude with us. Why? Laughter means loss of control and is contagious. Loss of control is frightening."

And yet it can be hugely beneficial and costs nothing to exercise. "Whenever I review the physiology of laughter I am reminded of what a powerful adaptive process it is."

For more details of the workshop, to be held at Roffey Park Management Institute, telephone 01293 851644. For more information about laughter therapy, telephone Dr Funes' office on 0181 944 0116.