As humans age, terrible things happen to us. Our muscles atrophy, our eyes deteriorate, we DVR every episode of “NCIS.”
But there’s another often overlooked price of getting older: We start to lose our sense of humor.
And this downside — known as “the humor cliff” — can have terrible consequences for our personal and professional lives.
We’re all going over it “together, tumbling down into the abyss of solemnity below,” write the authors of the new book “Humor Seriously” (Currency), out now.
Most of us go over that cliff at age 23. That’s when, according to a 2013 Gallup survey of 1.4 million people in 166 countries, the frequency in which we laugh or smile in a given day begins to plummet.
“It’s global and it’s disheartening,” Jennifer Aaker, one of the book’s authors, told The Post.
“That was our main question: Why is this happening,” added co-author Naomi Bagdonas.
Aaker is a behavioral-science professor at Stanford. Bagdonas is a leadership coach. Together, they teach a class called Humor: Serious Business at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business that aims to instruct students “how to use humor and levity to transform their future organizations and lives.”
In some ways, the humor cliff makes sense. Childhood is often carefree. Adulthood often isn’t. The average 4-year-old, the authors write, laughs as many as 300 times a day. The average 40-year-old will take two and a half months to log that many chuckles.
The culprit just might be your job.
“We grow up, enter the workforce, and suddenly become ‘serious and important people,’ trading laughter for ties and pantsuits,” the authors write. “Before long, we lose levity entirely in a sea of bottom lines, slide decks, and mind-numbing conference calls.”
After surveying more than 700 workers across various industries, the authors found that in the pursuit of “professionalism,” many people are afraid to show off their sense of humor, as well as more of their true personality, at work each day.
Aaker and Bagdonas have pinpointed four reasons why.
The first, believed by a “large portion” of respondents, is the feeling that humor “simply had no place amid serious work.”
“In fact, we find this isn’t the case,” Bagdonas says. “Humor is a really powerful way to come across as more authentic, more human. It’s not in opposition to seriousness. It can reduce stress and foster collaboration.”
What’s more, a survey of hundreds of executives conducted by Robert Half International and Hodge-Cronin & Associates found that a staggering 98 percent of them preferred employees who had a sense of humor and that 84 percent believed employees with a sense of humor did better work.
The second reason many are afraid to be funny at work is that they have a “deep, paralyzing” fear that their joke will fall flat.
But in one study, researchers found that deploying humor, even if it doesn’t draw laughs, will still signal confidence, competence and status — as long as the joke is appropriate. (More on appropriateness in a second.)
The third fear holding us back is that “there’s this misperception that in order to leverage humor you have to be funny,” Aaker says.
It’s not about being Will Ferrell in the conference room, but “about creating a culture where people’s senses of humor are welcome and people are welcome to bring a broader sense of themselves to work,” Aaker says.
One study by a researcher named Wayne Decker discovered that managers who had a sense of humor — never mind if they were funny themselves — were rated by their subordinates as 23 percent more respected, 25 percent more pleasant to work with and 17 percent friendlier.
Lastly, you can also shelve the misconception that a sense of humor is either something you’re born with or not.
“Each of us has a unique sense of humor, and it’s a muscle we can develop,” Bagdonas says.
Start developing it, if you haven’t already. Laughter is good for our mental health, releasing a “cocktail of hormones that make us feel happier,” the authors write.
“It’s like exercising, meditating and having sex at the same time, at least to our brains,” Aaker says.
But most of all, not falling off that humor cliff at age 23 could pay major dividends in your working life.
Research by Brad Bitterly, Maurice Schweitzer and Alison Wood Brooks asked participants to rate a travel presentation. Half of the presentations were straight, the other half contained a throwaway joke at the end. The jokey presenters were perceived as “5 percent more competent, 11 percent more confident, and 37 percent higher in status.”
In the same study, when participants were asked to pick a team leader, the person who’d made the joke was “significantly more likely to be chosen.”
When it comes to sales, another experiment by researchers Karen O’Quin and Joel Aronoff asked participants to negotiate with a research assistant posing as an art dealer for a piece of art. The study found that participants were willing to pay a price that was 18 percent higher if the “dealer” added the dumb joke, “My final offer is X … and I’ll throw in my pet frog.”
Humor is also good for office bonding. Laughter releases oxytocin, the so-called trust hormone, and helps solidify closeness.
To test this out, researchers Alan Gray, Brian Parkinson and Robin Dunbar had two strangers sit together and watch a 5-minute video clip. Half of the participants got a funny blooper reel from a popular TV show. The other half got boring footage fit for a nature channel documentary.
The researchers then asked each participant to write a message to the person they’d sat next to. Those who’d watched the laugh-inducing footage disclosed “significantly more personal information” than those who hadn’t.
Humor also enhances creativity by helping us see connections “we previously missed, and making us feel psychologically safe enough to share our risky or unconventional ideas.”
What’s more, it reduces stress in the moment, fostering resilience.
Of course, humor can also be a minefield. Just ask comedian Kevin Hart, who lost a gig hosting the 2018 Oscars after jokey-but-homophobic tweets resurfaced.
The authors suggest you evaluate every joke for whether it’s telling too harsh a truth, whether it touches on too painful a subject and whether there’s enough distance from the pain to laugh about.
Laughing now, after what has been an especially hard year for many, may seem “superficial or silly or not appropriate,” Aaker says, “but that’s actually when we need humor the most.”
“The place to go for humor right now is in areas for shared humanity and vulnerability,” Bagdonas says. “It’s not about making fun of COVID, it’s making fun of the reality that we’re all cooped up in our homes when the walls are crumbling in on us.”
So what should you do if you feel yourself slipping off that humor cliff?
The first step, the authors suggest, is to take a humor audit. During a week, take note of when you laughed, what made you laugh and also when you made someone else laugh.
The exercise could help train your mind to better recognize opportunities for humor. You can also learn to be “more generous with your laughter,” Aaker said.
“It has this extraordinary impact on your physical health,” she adds. “It also makes others feel good. At a moment in time when we need to cultivate a culture of inclusivity and make others feel valued in more thoughtful ways, shared laughter is an incredible tool that we’re simply not using. And it’s free.”
While most people fall off the humor cliff at 23 — and keep falling and falling — research shows that changes as we become elderly and start laughing more frequently.
One reason could be that we’re no longer working. Surveys show that people laugh more on weekends than workdays to begin with, and in retirement, every day is a weekend. Another possibility is that humor in old age “is a way of building bonds and making memories,” Aaker says.
The bottom line is, don’t keep falling off the humor cliff in the name of imagined professionalism. Bring a sense of humor to work and sprinkle in more of your personality … before it’s too late.
“My mom worked at a hospice,” Aaker says. “What people were often saying on the last days of their life was, I wish I didn’t take myself so seriously.”