The secret to family happiness: Include laughter in your culture

By Amy Zehnder

Ever wonder if there might be a secret sauce that, if poured on family members, would make them easier to get along with? Or maybe a specially formulated epoxy that could repair broken family relationships? Many families are searching for something akin to great-great-grandma's secret lasagna recipe—the one that had the ability to bring everyone together from near and far, even if only for one joyous evening.

Thousands of books and resources are available to help family members revive, repair and maintain family relationships. These materials are replete with tips on how to communicate better, resolve conflicts and make decisions as a family enterprise and an enterprising family. Yet there is one secret to family happiness that is rarely written about or discussed: laughter. Laughter is the secret ingredient for creating a positive family culture.

Laughter has a way of connecting one's heart, head and soul with others'. It is a social sport, for without an audience, it dies quickly. Although occasionally one will laugh at oneself, it is not the same as having someone with whom to share the joy of laughter. Laughter simply dies in isolation. Yet it's contagious when shared.

A physiological change occurs when we laugh. Even if only for a nanosecond, laughing opens up our receptors to listening and hearing what others have to say. Children and adults alike learn best where there is an element of fun and laughter incorporated into the learning experience. Consider your cherished memories of friends and family members. In talking with families, we find that their fondest memories include shared positive experiences sprinkled with laughter.

Laughter across generations

Watch grandparents play with their grandkids. You can see the elder's inner child emerge, and smiles appear on often-serious faces. Besides the obvious genetic pride between grandparents and grandchildren, older adults enjoy being around younger children because they enjoy watching them do funny, outrageous, "you-can't-make-this-stuff-up" things that make them laugh.

I witnessed a family who, for many years, had the following arrangement: The great-aunt and great-uncle, in their 70s, took care of a sister's grandchildren, starting at ages 5 and 7, for 11 weeks each summer. Although the couple were doing this to help their great-niece, a struggling single mom, the arrangement continued for seven years. One motivating factor was a sense of obligation, but mostly the older couple did it because they got so much joy from being around these kids. They didn't want it to end. These children made them laugh!

Part of the reason the arrangement was so successful was that the great-aunt and great-uncle did not allow electronics to be a part of daily activities. Instead, they chose to do things with the children that would create opportunities for laughter . . . and it worked. It also led to great stories.

Connecting older generations with younger ones is a magical force, especially when they can laugh together. Finding ways for grandparents and grandkids to laugh during the early years creates lifetime bonds. Incorporating humor into parent-child relationships can be a bit more challenging, especially given today's electronic distractions and hectic schedules. Yet if you want to create a positive family culture and you still have children living at home, make it a priority to incorporate humor and laughter into your daily routines.

When it comes to laughing with your family, all humor should be positive and affirming. One family asked their funniest member to be in charge of family fun. This gave her, and by proxy other family members, permission to keep laughing. Even as she grew up and became more serious, she continued to bring levity to the family environment. Is there anyone in your family who could serve as "Chief Humor Officer"?

Laughing with people is different from laughing at them. What you are striving for is good, clean humor. If someone isn't laughing with you, don't make them the butt of the jokes.

Laughing together is a sign of healthy relationships. Conversely, a lack of laughter in families is likely a sign that problems exist. Even worse are family gatherings marked by biting sarcasm, eye rolling, lack of regard for one another's time and interrupting one another with sharp, unforgiving comments. Who wants to be a part of that environment?

In these challenged families, words like exhaustion, danger, beware, thin ice, and walking on eggshells are often part of the family lexicon. It can be draining for everyone.

Two brothers who have challenged each other for years have exhausted themselves and the whole family. One brother said, "Look at me; I've aged 20 years in the last five just dealing with him." Their sister added, "My brothers have not laughed together since they were 5."

Why is laughter such a powerful antidote? Because it affects every level of our being. Its positive health benefits are physical, mental and social.

In an article entitled "Laughter Is the Best Medicine" on HelpGuide.org, Melinda Smith and Jeanne Segal write, "Laughter is a powerful antidote to stress, pain, and conflict. Nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance than a good laugh. Humor lightens your burdens, inspires hopes, connects you to others, and keeps you grounded, focused, and alert. With so much power to heal and renew, the ability to laugh easily and frequently is a tremendous resource for surmounting problems, enhancing your relationships, and supporting both physical and emotional health."

Using laughter to repair broken relationships

Laughter has the power to mend broken relationships and make life more enjoyable. For example, in one family a long misunderstanding existed between mother and daughter. Family gatherings were always tense, and the sooner the gathering ended, the better it was for everyone. Then a new person entered into the equation, a future son-in-law. He was a very successful businessman who had a way of defusing tense conversations. Although he never tried to get the mother and daughter to be best friends, he insisted on having casual family gatherings on a regular basis. The daughter was reluctant to go every time, but complied. At these gatherings the new son-in-law would get everyone laughing or at least smiling (even if they were just smiling and shaking their heads at him). He would start discussions and then add humor to the conversation with his quick wit. Often, he was the target of his own humor. But it worked.

During the laughing moments, the mother and daughter would occasionally make eye contact, even if just for a few seconds. Their eyes would meet while they were still smiling. At the end of the evening, enough smiles had been shared that it would have been weird for the mother and daughter to not say a cordial good-bye, sometimes accompanied by a short hug. Although it took years, slowly the walls came down and today they continue to laugh together. The past events that caused the rift were never discussed, but the bond of laughter made it possible for them to have a relationship again.

A funny thing about humor

We were enjoying a nice talk over dinner with some family members. The eldest sister, who ran the family business, was talking about retiring within the next year. Her sons said they were already preparing themselves to be the next-generation business managers. When the sister's two brothers arrived, the conversation went in a completely different direction. The elder brothers were laughing and carrying on in a silly, humorous way. They were not only ridiculing each other, but also laughing at themselves. They would say crazy things and then crack up laughing.

The sister smiled and shook her head as she watched them. It was obvious that these brothers laughed together a lot and mixed humor into their everyday conversations. Because of this rapport, they were able to talk about anything. It wasn't that they made light of serious situations; they simply said things to one another with smiles and kindness. There was no level of intensity in their tone with one another, just respect and love. And the best part of all is that their nephews were soaking it all in. They were watching how brothers could solve complex issues in a healthy, humorous way. These older brothers were modeling a positive family culture for the succeeding generation.

In "Laughter Is the Best Medicine," Smith and Segal write that incorporating humor and laughter in relationships allows you to be more spontaneous, let go of defensiveness, release inhibitions and express your true feelings. "All emotional sharing builds strong and lasting relationship bonds, but sharing laughter and play also adds joy, vitality, and resilience," they write. "And humor is a powerful and effective way to heal resentments, disagreements, and hurts."

Think about the humor and laughter factor in your family's culture. How inviting is it?

Everyone is attracted to laughter. When you hear it, even at a restaurant or in a side conversation, you want to know, "What was so funny?" The bottom line is, who doesn't want to be a part of a family that laughs together?

Amy M. Zehnder, Ph.D. is a strategic wealth coach for Ascent Private Capital Management of U.S. Bank (ascent.usbank.com). She works with families to articulate their purpose and passions through family meetings and retreats covering topics such as leadership, governance, trust and communication.

Copyright 2016 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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May/June 2016

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