Could laughter be the root of good culture?

If you’ve not already subscribed there’s a weekly email that goes out with the podcast. This week’s includes a brilliant article on how small teams seem to be more radical, there’s a couple of discussions about Professor Adam Grant’s work and there’s a really good article on laughter in teams.

The laughter in teams article is from some research that NASA is looking at when it comes to casting their first expeditions to Mars. NASA looked at the success of different teams in isolation in Antartica. And it seemed that when there is a joker in the team, someone gifted in the art of lightening the mood it helps the overall morale of the team. I found this one fascinating, in The Joy of Work i talk about the successful Cambridge Boat race team in 2008 whose performance was transformed from a losing practice tie to winning boat race performance when they promoted a funny colleague to the boat. They felt that even though this wasn’t the best performing athlete they all felt themselves to be in a better mental state when he was present.

This is really neglected as a component of a happy team and if you’ve read The Joy of Work you’ll know I’m obsessed with it.

And it leads on to today’s guest. Robert Provine’s 2000 book Laughter is a real page turner of research about one of the most enjoyable but least studied aspects of modern life. He has also gone on to cover laughter – and other human behaviours in his 2013 book Curious Behaviour – Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond. Provine is the world’s expert on the subject. When we talked to Professor Sophie Scott in the live episode on laughter at work this time last year she mentioned professor Provine several times, and he’s also been the consultant for products like Tickle Me Elmo.

There’s some fascinating discussion. Laughter seems to signal a couple of things, safety and play. He makes a really interesting point at the end about the current state of politics being filled with the opposite of laughter – which is fear and anger

There was an interesting exercise a few years ago (and this was called out in Dan Lyons book lab rats) the exercise was conducted by Dan Ariely looked at the data from Great Place to Work. Ariely wanted to see if they had anything that correlated with stock data, to see if it would give you good investment advice to put money in good culture companies. Great Place to Work has been running since 1981 and each year has surveyed thousands of workers. Ariely looked at the data they had gathered.

There was one factor that leapt out. But it was an odd thing. It was safety. Companies where people consistently reported feeling safe at work tended to outperform the stock market average, sometimes by 200%. It applied to physical and emotional safety. The other factor that seemed to correlate was companies that had a strong sense of welcome.

If you listen to Professor Provine laughter would be in service of making all of those things stronger. What follows is the science of laughter, why we laugh and what it does. I hope you enjoy it.

Robert R. Provine, is a neuroscientist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. I called him on the phone to pick his brain