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Humor, Seriously

We have exciting news about a partnership we are doing with Dr. Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, educators at Stanford Graduate School of Business, who are launching their new book, "Humor, Seriously" on Feb. 2. They are donating their new book for each of our care packages this year. You can also pre-order a hardcover today and they will send you a special early digital edition. Just enter your info here:

What's the book about? The book is described as teaching "readers how to harness the power of humor in business (and life), through their smart (and funny) book based on their popular class at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. It’s about why and how to use humor as a secret weapon in business and life."

Who are these ladies and what does humor mean to them? We asked them to answer this Q&A to find out more.

Humor Beats Cancer: How did you first make the connection between humor and business?

Jennifer: Five years ago, we set out to answer three simple questions generated from our Humor: Serious Business class at Stanford, and we ended up writing a book along the way.

Those questions were:

  • How would our businesses change for the better if we had more joy at work?

  • How would our world change for the better if we navigated our lives on the precipice of a smile?

  • Most importantly, how do we get there?

We also asked "How would we look with bangs?" and quickly realized the answer was “not good.”

The question came from a personal place for both of us. But for different reasons. For nearly all my life, my mother has volunteered at hospice - so I grew up hearing stories about what people wish for in their last days of life. (We’re what you call a really fun family.) And the wish we heard time and time again was about humor: people wish they had laughed more and didn’t take themselves so seriously. I saw how having more joy contributes to a more meaningful life.

Naomi: For me, it was less about meaning — at the time — and more about just not feeling soulless at work. I had spent my career climbing the ranks at a major consulting firm by day — and doing improv and sketch comedy by night. Until one day a client told me in passing she’d never seen me laugh, and by the way, imagined that I spent most of my weekends with my cat, which she guessed was named Cat. I realized that I was living a double life: while I was doing really well at work, I was only finding joy on weekends. I wanted to believe that we can all have both — be good at our jobs and joyful at work.

In our journey, what we found is that humor is a transformative superpower that is under-leveraged both in business and in life. By leaders (whether a CEO or a parent) trying to drive meaningful results - and by ordinary people trying to live happier, fuller, more authentic lives at home and at work.

As your new book title says, how is humor a secret weapon?

Naomi: Yes, humor has enormous benefits for mental wellbeing, physical health, and even your bottom line. Yet most leaders are massively underinvested in humor as an asset.

As an example, Connor Diemand-Yauman is not most leaders. Connor is a serial entrepreneur and recently joined a large nonprofit called Merit America as their co-CEO. His first all-hands Zoom call with his organization was scheduled amidst a challenging time for the world, and a particularly divisive time in the United States. Connor wanted to acknowledge the hardship of the moment while signaling care and reassurance. So during the call, he was sharing his screen and when it was time for someone else to speak, he pretended to leave his screen-share on accidentally. As everyone held their breath watching him, he went to Google and typed in: “things inspirational CEOs say in hard times.”

Everyone lost it. It was a beautiful moment of levity and signalling of vulnerability in a totally unexpected and funny way. And it was intentional — it wasn’t hard, and it had a very real upside for Connor.

Jennifer: Research shows that:

  • Leaders with sense of humor are seen as 27 percent more motivating and admired

  • Their employees are 15 percent more engaged

  • Their teams are more than twice as likely to solve a creativity challenge.

Also, they make more money. Studies show that even adding a lighthearted line at the end of a sales pitch — like, my final offer is X and I'll throw in my pet frog — increases customers’ willingness to pay by 18 percent.

You get paid more based on a bad dad joke. And using humor at work isn’t that hard.

Naomi: If there’s something you find even remotely amusing — like “people videoconferencing from home — may or may not be wearing pants.” — you can use an easy technique called the rule of three by creating a simple list where the last item is a bit unexpected.

So you might say: I miss so many things about office life: Having spontaneous coffee chats, leaving notes on my coworkers desks and wearing pants.

See, look at you - 18 percent richer!

Part of this is that shared laughter accelerates a feeling of closeness and trust. When pairs of strangers laughed together for five minutes before completing a self-disclosure exercise, their interactions are rated as 30 percent more intimate.

Even reminiscing about moments of shared laughter makes individuals report being 23 percent more satisfied in their relationships. All the while, research by Gallop shows that one of the greatest drivers of employee performance is having a close friend at work.

What do you hope people get out of your new book and why did you write it?

Jennifer: Well first, it’s important to recognize that a lot of humor’s power is chemical. When we laugh, our brains release a cocktail of healthy hormones — dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin. And this changes not just how we feel — 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. (Get it?)

In part because laughing with someone not at them, but with them — is a show of empathy. When you laugh it signals an understanding: I get you, I see you

Naomi: So how do we laugh together more or flex this empathy muscle? One way is to get to know each other’s humor styles.

We find there are four styles: The Stand-Up, The Sweetheart, The Sniper, and The Magnet. Briefly (which you can do at, but here is a shortcut):

The Stand-Up is bold, irreverent, and unafraid to ruffle a few feathers for a laugh. Like Amy Schumer.

The Sweetheart is earnest, understated and uses humor to lighten the mood. Think Jimmy Kimmel.

The Sniper is edgy, sarcastic and a master of the unexpected dig. Similar to Michelle Wolf.

The Magnet is expressive, charismatic and easy to make laugh. Such as Jimmy Fallon.

The more you know these styles, the easier it is to read the room, and know when to drop that perfectly timed frog joke.

Tip: simply be more generous with laughter. Look for people laughing around you and join in, for both your sakes. Physiologically, humor is kind of like drugging your colleagues! But in a completely healthy way.

Like Spanx founder and CEO Sara Blakely mailing the head buyer from Neiman Marcus a shoe and handwritten note saying: “trying to get my foot in the door; have minutes to chat?"

Or Secretary of State Madeleine Albright singing a humorous duet with her counterpart in the Russian government after a particularly tense first meeting. Seriously. It was a takeoff on West Side Story called “East West Story.”

Just signaling that your sense of humor has a heartbeat makes a shockingly big difference.

Through Humor Beats Cancer we often talk about how humor is an important coping tool. How have you used humor in that way in your own lives?

Jennifer: Putting humor to work starts in our own lives in a really simple way.

First, it helps to know that you don’t have to be funny. This is not about cracking jokes, it’s about showing up as human. This has helped to lower the bar.

Second, know it is a learnable skill. Take the easy wins: throw in the pet frog one-liner. We have a whole chapter in our book with secrets from comedians — which is like a humor boot camp - but less muddy.

Last, just laugh more generously. When we have more laughter in our lives, we have more love.

What don't people often understand about the power of humor?

Naomi: How much we have lost it. Over a million people in 166 countries were asked a simple question: “Did you smile or laugh yesterday?” For those who are 16, 18, 20 – the answer, largely, is yes. Then, around age 23, the answer becomes no - and we don’t start laughing again until we retire.

Put another way, the average 4-year-old laughs 300 times a day. It takes the average 40-year-old two and a half months to laugh that many times.

When we surveyed thousands of people about what holds them back from using humor at work, paramount was the belief that they are not funny. There are a few things backwards about this belief.

One is the belief that a sense of humor is something you either have or don’t. But everyone has a sense of humor, which is part of how you see life, whether or not it’s expressed. 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.

To help we created Humor, Seriously Virtual Bootcamp, a 21-day coaching tool delivered to your phone via text will help you get serious about humor and harness it as the superpower it is.

What advice do you have for those facing cancer when it comes to using their humor to face this disease or any of life's challenges?

Jennifer: The truth is humor really does help in the most challenging times, both as a chemical boost – it’s a natural painkiller which actually makes you more focused, something you can’t get from a pharmaceutical – and in terms of engaging with your environment. So, using and leveraging humor actually does help - but also you need to use it at the right time, right place and right way.

Find things naturally funny in your life. This is easy because you are not getting someone to laugh, you’re just asking them to find humor in some really, dumb, simple things. The root of comedy is observation, and just being able to switch your focus to one thing that makes you laugh, whether it’s something deep or something trivial, is a relief. So we say “write down three funny things each day,” and that simple task turns out help fight depression both in the short and long term.

Also, stepping back more generally, humor is 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. Love.

Naomi: Here’s the big secret: humor mitigates all five of these regrets.

Boldness: I wish I had been less fearful of change and lived more boldly.

  • Humor moves us through negative emotions more quickly - it diffuses tension, thereby allowing us to take bigger bolder risks.

Authenticity: I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself - not the life others expected.

  • Humor empowers us to share parts of ourselves that are unconventional and authentic. When we’re finding joy, we care less about what people think and do more of what we believe.

Presence: I wish I had appreciated the moment more and simply savored my time.

  • Humor requires you to be fully present, to listen hard and search for observations in each moment. We are wired to anchor too much on our past or future; humor reminds us, viscerally, that each day — as it unfolds — is our life.

Joy: I wish I hadn’t taken myself so seriously. That I had let myself be more joyful.

  • When you navigate your life on the precipice of a smile, you’ll be surprised how many things push you over the edge. How many places joy can be found or created.

Love. 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. When laughter cuts through tension and divisiveness to forge connection, humor enables love. Where there is humor, love isn’t far behind.

The leaders who do these things will create healthier, more productive and joyful places to work. And the individuals who do, will cultivate more meaning in their lives. So their lives will be lived with fewer regrets.

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