Meet Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, authors of Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life.
Dr. Jennifer Aaker teaches about human-centered AI, designing for VR/AR, and the power of story at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she was awarded the MBA Professor of the Year, 2018-2019. Her work has been featured in The Economist, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Science.
Naomi Bagdonas is a lecturer at the Stanford GSB, an executive coach for leaders of Fortune 100 companies, and a media consultant for celebrities making appearances on shows from Saturday Night Live to The Today Show. She received her formal training at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. She experiences first-hand the benefits of laughter, teaching improv at the San Francisco county jail and performing at comedy venues.
Nir Eyal: Why did you write this book?
Jennifer Aaker: Through our past experiences, we realized we’d sorely underestimated humor’s potential to transform work and life. For Naomi, it was about using humor as an outlet and asset to deal with the seriousness of work she was doing. For me, humor was never a focus initially but sure, I liked laughter (which is impossible to say without sounding like a sociopath). This changed after I wrote my first book, The Dragonfly Effect about the power of story and networks to drive positive change in the world, and realized that humor could drive people in ways I had never before imagined.
Naomi Bagdonas: The two of us met in 2014 after I guest lectured in one of Jennifer’s classes on a completely unrelated topic. That led to us exploring questions, like what if together we could blend the behavioral science of humor with principles from comedy and apply them in a way that would actually be useful in business? We ended up creating and co-teaching the popular Stanford GSB course, Humor: Serious Business. Now we want to scale this beyond the classroom to help people find more joy at work and in their lives. So, here we are!
JA: There’s a huge lack of humor in the world, especially among serious people (which many of us are), and what’s surprising is that it’s costly. At first, when you hear how seldom adults laugh, you think, “Well, that sucks, but it’s probably practical.” But research shows “that sucks, and it’s wildly impractical.” Not laughing is a mistake. It costs you health, creativity, relationship-building, and negotiating power. It’s an easy mistake to make because there’s so much social reinforcement for the idea of being buttoned-up all the time, which we know because we’ve been teaching at business-school, which is ground zero for overserious attitudes.
NE: You’ve done some fascinating research. From what you’ve learned, what surprised you the most?
NB: We’ve all fallen off the humor cliff. Between the ages of 23 and 70, our ability to laugh declines precipitously, a phenomenon known as the “Humor Cliff”. The average 4-year old laughs up to 300 times per day; the average 40-year old laughs that many times in 2.5 months. And that’s in average times—which these are not. Add an endless pandemic, global warming, and whatever is happening with everyone’s quarantine hair, and it’s a miracle we’re laughing at all.
JA: Humor changes our brains. A lot of humor’s power is chemical. When we laugh, our brains release a cocktail of healthy hormones like dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, and this changes not just how we feel, e.g. more calm, confident, and resourceful, but how others perceive us—as more influential, likeable, and trustworthy. Oxytocin, by the way, is the same hormone released during sex and childbirth—both moments when, evolutionarily, it benefits us to feel bonded. In other words, having sex, giving birth, and laughing with colleagues on Zoom have more in common than you might think. Everyone’s building bonds, and no one’s wearing pants.
NE: What lessons should people take away from your book regarding how they should design their own behavior or the behavior of others?
Tip #1: Do a humor audit.
JA: At the beginning of our course at Stanford, we have our students complete a Humor Audit—asking ourselves and others when we do, or more often don’t, show a sense of humor and looking for those gaps where we aren’t bringing our full, funny selves to the table. They spend one week and simply write down the moments when they laughed and when they made someone else laugh. So, for the next week, start a list and jot down these moments.
Don’t overthink it. These moments don’t need to be knee-slappingly-funny. They can be moments that made you smile or even just tilt your head a little and go…“Huh!”
This sounds quite simple, but it puts into practice a psychological principle called the priming effect, which essentially shows that we find what we set out to look for. Meta, I know.
This habit creates a mindset shift. By the end of the week, you’ll be navigating your life on the precipice of a smile rather than a frown.
NB: You can also learn a lot from comedians, who are just really observant people with a sense of timing. Just noticing what’s a little off and pointing it out is a start. This gets us not only laughing but also engaging more with what’s around us.
Tip #2: Use Comedy Techniques
A common misconception is that humor involves inventing something from thin air. When you think of it this way, it feels terribly difficult. In reality, humor more often involves noticing what’s true.
These truths can be really simple, like people video conferencing from home may or may not be wearing pants. Oh, guilty as charged! Then, you can use easy techniques like the Rule of Three to move that observation from mundane to (slightly) comical.
Using the Rule of Three, we might say, “When you’re working from home, you just don’t have some of the subtle things that make office life office life, like afternoon tea, supportive eye contact in meetings, and trousers.”
JA: The other thing, which sounds kind of crazy at first, is to laugh every chance you get. If something’s remotely funny, push yourself all the way into a laugh, which is both chemically rewarding for you and socially bonding for everyone around you.
Tip #3: Be generous with your laughter.
It’s in your interest to let yourself laugh if something’s remotely funny. Scientifically, being easy going with laughs is hugely beneficial. You feel closer to those you laugh with. Physiologically, humor is kind of like drugging your colleagues, but in a completely healthy way.
Research shows that having a sense of humor makes managers 23% more respected and 25% more pleasant to work with. Also better looking. And that’s science. Simple.
NE: What’s one thing you believe that most people would disagree with?
JA: Even people who aren’t funny should be using humor. You’ve heard, “Don’t quit your day job,” right? We agree with that; don’t quit your day job, but DO bring a sense of humor to your day job. As long as you aren’t offending anyone, your sense of humor will help. That doesn’t usually mean telling jokes, but being willing to be playful and laugh with others. Those kinds of easy things cut the tension and boost morale.
NB: In order to use humor and levity in the workplace, you don’t have to “be funny.” What’s far more important than cracking jokes is cultivating joy.
See if you can follow me here: humor is both objective and subjective, which is a statement all people half disagree with. Most people believe it’s one or the other, but we can objectively group people into four different humor styles that show why they have different subjective experiences of what’s funny.
JA: Also, sense of humor is not something you either have or don’t. In reality, your sense of humor is like a muscle—even if it feels weak right now, the more you flex it, the easier and more natural it becomes to make yourself and others laugh. Part of this is just about understanding your own humor style. Over the last five years, we’ve run studies that show people that people tend to fall into four broad humor styles:
- The first style is the Stand-Up. These are bold, natural entertainers who aren’t afraid to cross a line and ruffle a few feathers for a good laugh. They build intimacy through teasing—we’ll often hear Stand-Ups say, “If I’m making fun of you, it’s a sign that I like you!”
- Next is the Sweetheart. They’re more subtle and affiliative, as we call it, meaning they use humor that uplifts others rather than teasing or poking fun. Sweethearts are earnest, honest, and understated, so listen closely when a Sweetheart is in the room.
- Sniper. Snipers are edgy, sarcastic, and nuanced. They pick their moments carefully, and joke more often to make a point than to lift people up or tear them down. Though they don’t seek the spotlight, they also won’t hesitate to cross a line for a laugh.
- Last the Magnet. They are affiliative and expressive—that big personality who gets everyone laughing in a positive way. They’re outgoing and keep things warm and uplifting, avoiding controversial humor while radiating charisma.
The key is to disabuse yourself of the idea that using humor is the same thing as “being funny”. Get to know and practice your humor style. You can take our humor quiz to find your humor style.
NB: Now, humor isn’t without its risks too. For example, there are risks with each style. For example, standups and snipers are at greatest risk of offending or alienating. Sweethearts and snipers are at greatest risk of taking away their own power through self-deprecation.
That means something—especially if you look at gender differences through the lens of humor. For example, male leaders typically self categorize as Standups and Snipers at work, whereas female leaders typically self-categorize as Sweethearts and Magnets. This means that men, in general, are more at risk for offending, whereas women are at higher risk of over self-deprecating and undermining our power.
We dive into how to mitigate these risks in the book. We devote an entire chapter 7 of the book, and a day of our course at Stanford to exploring how humor exists in the space between the comedian and the audience. It is so context dependent, and we don’t always know the context of our audience. So there are risks but also ways to mitigate them.
NE: What’s your most important good habit or routine? What one product or service has helped you build a healthy habit?
JA: We actually created a 21-day humor bootcamp to work on your humor every day, You can take via text message (bootcamp.humorseriously.com). It’s like a helpful, slightly-annoying friend who gets you to work on humor on a daily basis. After those three weeks, a lot of this work will become internalized and natural. Humor is sometimes hard, but it gets (much) easier when you develop a habit. Also, we are the most enjoyable slightly-annoying friends you will ever have.
NE: What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading this book?
NB: First, humor has a transformative effect on our behavior, psychology, mental health, creativity, feelings of closeness with others, and sense of meaning in life.
Second, humor is a completely underleveraged asset at work. Our workplaces are far too humorless.
Third, humor is a learnable skill. Small shifts in behavior and mindset are all it takes to reap the benefits, which are particularly profound in hard times.
JA: Lastly, humor isn’t just a way for us to be more effective leaders and more joyful people, but it’s a way for us to lead lives of greater meaning. Research studies conducted by hospice workers have revealed surprising consistency about what people wish for in their final days of life—the regrets they have when looking back on how they’ve spent their time. From this work, five themes emerged: boldness, authenticity, presence, joy, and love.
Here’s the big secret: humor mitigates all five of these regrets.
- I wish I lived more boldly. Humor moves us through negative emotions more quickly, defusing tension and empowering us to take bolder risks.
- I wish I lived more authentically. Humor helps us express ourselves authentically. When we’re finding joy, we care less about what people think and do more of what we believe.
- I wish I savored more and was more present. Humor requires us to be fully present, to listen hard—to search for hidden truths in each moment. It requires us to live in the reality that each moment as it unfolds is our life.
- I wish I laughed more and didn’t take myself so seriously. When you navigate your life on the precipice of a smile, you’ll be surprised how many places joy can be found or created and how easy it becomes to laugh generously.
- I wish I had the chance to say I love you one more time. There are few acts as easy and generous as sharing a laugh with someone. Where there is humor, love isn’t far behind.