Boost workplace happiness with humor—but only the Ellen DeGeneres kind


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The first few months I spent at my big-girl, full-time job, I was terrified about letting my sense of humor loose on any coworkers. I’d been previously indoctrinated into believing a desk is a space for serious business emails (Sincerely, Official Member of the Workforce) and torturous mental obstacle courses (read: spreadsheets). While there’s certainly space in my day-to-day for that kind of stuff, research suggests cracking up with colleagues deserves some on-the-clock time, too. Especially LOLs of the variety that poke fun at yourself.

“A good laugh can be refreshing and relieve tension, which is a great advantage in the workplace,” Barbara Plester, PhD and author of Laugh Out Loud: A User’s Guide to Workplace Humor, tells Thrive. The only caveat: The type of wit you employ (ha, a work pun, get it?) really, really matters. You want your brand of funny to be about yourself—not others. Dr. Plester warns that potentially inflammatory forms of humor like teasing, sarcasm, and ridicule are a no-go in a cubicle environment. So leave your inner Joan Rivers at the door and replace her with your inner Ellen DeGeneres.

“A good laugh can be refreshing and relieve tension, which is a great advantage in the workplace.” —Barbara Plester, PhD

That said, there is such a thing as too much of a good sense of humor. To avoid going so overboard with the self-mockery to the extent that your lunch buddy starts to worry about your self-esteem, unleash your slights only when the office’s mood could benefit form a little lightness. For example, during a really boring metrics meeting, or when your team is battling the afternoon slump. Try leaning more on puns that don’t target anyone, including yourself, and never use your own work skills as the butt of a joke. You’ve hustled too hard for that!

If all goes well, you’ll have a whole room of over-caffeinated, bleary-eyed colleagues laughing—or at least chuckling. It may seem like a very small triumph in the moment, but studies demonstrate that carving out time for some funny business can reduce stress and anxiety while increasing creativity and energy levels. So go ahead and deliver your bit about not having seen inbox zero since the day Gmail was invented, or your daily duel with the coffee machine that you definitely don’t “love a latte.” Once the dust settles from the smirks and eye rolls, your co-workers will realize you gifted them a tension-relieving dose of better morale.

If you’ve fallen out of love with your chosen job, read up on how to switch lanes in your career path.  

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