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
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