How We Work

Stories and thoughts about the things we do that (sometimes) work

Why You Should Treat Laughter As A Metric

Not laughing is a symptom of having too much distraction in our lives.

I was following the same yoga video I had followed more than 30 times in the past. Because I know the routine well, I usually have little trouble breathing rhythmically through the postures, feeling the subtleties of each movement, and sliding gently into a mind-body meditation.

This time, though, was drastically off. Not only did my mind wander, I was clumsy and confused. I did “Warrior 1” twice on the same side instead of switching legs. I lost my balance in eagle pose. And, at one point, looking up at the video from my standing split, I found myself two postures behind the leader.

The worst part wasn’t my poor performance though; it was my attitude and mood. I felt stressed, annoyed, and anxious – hardly the outcome I was looking for from yoga.

The problem? I wasn’t only doing yoga. I was watching the TV show Revolution on my iPad mini —perched next to my TV screen—at the same time.

It was an experiment that I started after a conversation with my mother. She and I were talking about her dinner plans and she mentioned she was going out with a couple she really enjoys. I asked what she enjoyed about them.

“They laugh a lot,” she answered, “and I love that. People don’t laugh so much anymore.”

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Her comment stuck with me. She’s right: We don’t laugh as much as we used to.

I thought a lot about it and arrived at a hypothesis I chose to test: It’s not that we’re depressed, it’s that we’re distracted. And laughter, it turns out, is not something that happens when we’re distracted.

I’ve written about the productivity downside to multitasking in the past. As my yoga experience and countless studies show, we pay a steep price in efficiency for spreading our attention so thinly.

But my mother’s observation points to a more nefarious consequence of multitasking: its emotional impact.

It’s impossible to feel joy or pleasure when our attention is fractured. Anger, frustration, annoyance—sure. Those emotions rise to the surface easily. In fact, multitasking encourages them. But laughter? It’s nearly impossible.

Why is this important? Does it really matter whether we’re laughing more or less? What does this have to do with leadership?

Everything, it turns out. My yoga experiment wasn’t the first I’d tried. Before that, I watched television while processing my credit card bill on an Excel spreadsheet—a seemingly mindless task that involves nothing more than dragging numbers from one cell to another. Not only did it take four times as long as when I did it undistracted, but I grew increasingly irritated as I worked. When someone walked into my office with a question, I growled.

That’s a leadership issue.

Not laughing is a symptom—a lagging indicator—of an ill that’s creating havoc in our lives and our organizations.

We aren’t laughing anymore because we aren’t fully present anymore. Physically we’re in one place but mentally, we’re all over the place. Think about some recent phone conversations you’ve had—and then consider what else you were doing at the same time. Were you surfing the web? Reading and deleting emails? Shooting off a text? Sorting through mail? Or maybe you were thinking about any number of problems—a renovation, a recent argument, a never-ending to-do list—unrelated to the topic at hand.

Unfortunately, being fully present in the moment has become a casualty of our too full and harried lives.

“But don’t some people get intense pleasure from the challenge of focusing on more than one thing at a time?” a friend asked me when I shared this notion with her. “What about complex multi-dimensional activities, like doing a presentation?”

She’s right. I love doing presentations. And when I do a presentation, I’m thinking about innumerable things at once—the content, my delivery, the energy in the room, my timing for a joke, that person in the front row who seems disgruntled, the amount of minutes I have left, etc.

But the reason I love the excitement of all those variables is precisely because they keep me laser-focused. I’m battle-ready, all my senses alert, prepared for anything. Yes, I’m holding a lot of things at once, but they’re all related.

Complex multi-dimensional activities hold so much pleasure precisely because they require singular focus. Everything we’re dealing with is connected. It’s when we’re focused simultaneously on things that are disconnected—like a conversation and an email—that we struggle.

Here’s the good news: The solution is fun.

As an achievement-driven guy, I’d like to suggest a personal challenge: Try to increase the number of times you laugh in a day. I don’t mean chuckle—that’s not a high enough bar—I mean really laugh. Choose a number: 3? 8? 20? Then try to achieve it.

On the surface, this seems a little nuts. But think about it: We measure all sorts of things in organizations that supposedly drive results—why not laughter? At least until we get the hang of it again.

The interesting thing about laughter is that you can’t force it. It just happens when the conditions are right. And the conditions are right when you’re focused on what you’re doing in the moment.

So how do we get our laughter numbers up? Create the conditions that make laughter more likely: Do one thing at a time. Focus on it entirely. If a distracting thought enters your mind and you’re afraid of forgetting it, write it down for later when you can focus on it exclusively. Don’t spread your attention beyond what’s right in front of you right now.

We already know those things will make us more productive. It’s nice to know they’ll bring us joy and laughter too.

Originally published at Harvard Business Review.

Peter Bregman is the author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done and Point B: A Short Guide to Leading a Big Change.

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