The death of President George H.W. Bush Snr led a lot of his friends and family to focus on some of the very funny comments he apparently was quite famous for. And it made me ponder how important humour is in leading a business, a team, a family or even a country.
I’ve always used jokes to distract an audience from the fact that I’m an economist and might possibly be boring. Luckily I’m not but the use of jokes early in a presentation at least make some people, who think I could be sleep-worthy, give me a chance.
I love jokes or funny stories because they actually make me feel better and medical case histories suggest we underestimate laughter at our peril.
“In the 13th century, surgeons used humor to distract patients during surgery,” writes Richard Hawk on the safetyandhealth.com website. “Today, laughter or “humour therapy” is employed by a variety of hospitals and cancer centres to help patients handle pain and improve their health.
“According to the Mayo Clinic, ‘Laughter may ease pain by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers. Laughter may also break the pain-spasm cycle common to some muscle disorders’.”
A lot people might not know or might not remember that President Bush had a ‘cameo’ role in that great US film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Anyone who saw the film could never forget that unbelievably boring economics teacher who kept asking the class for answers to his generally uninspiring questions, where he said: “Does anyone know what Vice-President Bush called this in 1980? Anyone? Something d-o-o economics — voodoo economics.”
The same teacher became famous for his role call, where his — “Bueller? (Pause) Bueller? (Pause) Bueller? — became the stuff of film legend.
History shows Bush actually had some very funny lines, which he actually intended to be funny.
His son George W. Bush made me laugh when he allegedly said (after having some issues with the French and their anti-economic ways): “The French don’t even have a word for entrepreneur!”
To the intentionally funnier Bush Snr, here are some of his best one-liners:
• “For seven and a half years, I've worked alongside President Reagan. We've had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We've had some sex – uh – setbacks.” (1988)
• “I've told you I don't live and die by the polls. Thus I will refrain from pointing out that we're not doing too bad in those polls” (1991)
• “I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don't care what the facts are.”
• “Fluency in English is something that I'm often not accused of.”
• “To kind of suddenly try to get my hair colored, and dance up and down in a miniskirt or do something, you know, show that I've got a lot of jazz out there and drop a bunch of one-liners, I'm running for the president of the United States – I kind of think I'm a scintillating kind of fellow.”
He also once said to one of his advisers: “If you are so smart, how come I’m President?”
But apart from being bemused by smart and funny one-liners, laughter has been credited for being a real tonic to some very sick people. The most famous case involved a critically acclaimed journalist, Dr Norman Cousins, who was the long-time editor of the Saturday Review, a global peacemaker, receiver of hundreds of awards, including the UN Peace Medal and nearly 50 honorary doctorate degrees.
In 1964 he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (a degenerative disease causing the breakdown of collagen), which left him in almost constant pain and motivated his doctor to say he would die within a few months. Cousins believed his condition was stress related and argued with his doctor that maybe an overdosing of laughter might help him heal himself. I guess when your doctor doesn’t give you more than a few months, anything is worth giving a go.
“With his doctors’ consent, he checked himself out of the hospital and into a hotel across the street and began taking extremely high doses of vitamin C, while exposing himself to a continuous stream of humorous films and similar “laughing matter,” writes Sebastian Gendry on the laughteronlineuniversity.com website. “He later claimed that 10 minutes of belly rippling laughter would give him two hours of pain-free sleep, when nothing else, not even morphine could help him.
“His condition steadily improved and he slowly regained the use of his limbs. Within six months he was back on his feet, and within two years he was able to return to his full-time job at the Saturday Review. His story baffled the scientific community and inspired a number of research projects.”
His story was turned into a TV movie starring Ed Asner in 1984 called The Anatomy of an Illness and it underlines the power of the positivity that comes out of the happiness that goes hand-in-hand with laughter.
Apart from the great gift of making someone laugh being something we all should have interest in encouraging, business leaders should not ignore the productivity benefits of, as UK comedians might say: “Having a laugh.”
A look at business and laughter by inc.com pointed out how the body responds positively to the input of laughter.
“Researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center have shown that laughter offsets the impact of mental stress and can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease,” Marla Tabaka wrote in 2014 on the inc.com website. “Yet another study at Loma Linda University School of Medicine shows that laughter appears to reduce serum levels of cortisol, dopac, and epinephrine.
“These stress hormones can certainly block creativity and reduce productivity levels so any opportunity to decrease them is beneficial not only to your health but also to your performance on the job. And believe it or not, laughing is great exercise!”
And I love that Dr. William Fry of Stanford University found that a good bout of laughter can burn as many calories as rowing intensely for 10 minutes!
Creativity is more likely in someone powered by a happy, humour-filled environment and I think it’s timely to remind you what Harvard’s Sean Achor and author of the New York Times best-sellers The Big Potential and The Happiness Advantage argues that success does not necessarily lead to happiness but happiness first can be a great pre-condition for success!
The Andre Agassi story showed how he was successful and unhappy for a long part of his tennis career but when Steffi Graf and a new life with her brought happiness, his tennis and results improved out of sight.
So if you’re in a leadership role, here’s a question you should answer for the looming 2019 year: what’s your laughter and happiness plan?
And as a bonus, I should at least finish with one of my favourite funny stories that featured a little old lady who went to her bank and asked the teller if she could speak with the manager. The teller with a sad face replied that the manager had died over the weekend and that they were all very upset.
The next day the lady went to the same teller and asked to speak to the bank manager. The teller thought the “poor old dear has memory issues” and so explained again that the bank manager had died and that they were all very upset. She said: “Oh yes, of course and went away.”
The next day she returned and went to the same teller and asked if she could speak with the bank manager but this time the teller had enough, and his customer service training wasn’t going to help him so he let her have it.
“Madam I’ve told you for two days running that the bank manager is dead. What are you playing at coming to me three days in a row asking to see the bank manager when you know he is dead?”
The lady replied: “I’m sorry young man but I just love hearing those words that ‘the bank manager is dead!”
My Christmas gift to you is to encourage you to get started on your laughter plan. I’ve got a word document labelled “Great Jokes” but you should also add video content like this from Rowan Atkinson’s “Welcome to Hell” piece at