As I wrote the other week, I now know the cognitive cost of self-control is ‘ego depletion’. In Wired’s less technical terms, acts of self-control ‘piss the ego off’ and attract us to angry thoughts, words and deeds.

‘Ego depletion’ has sometimes caused me to undo my good works with an ‘unnecessary’ withering remark or ‘unduly’ bleak assessment. But whilst these may seem ‘unnecessary’ or ‘undue’ in the eyes of others – and damaging certainly – experience, and now evidence, show a ‘depleted ego’ demands its redress. Is there a better way? This week, I discovered, that laughter works just as well as scything remarks in topping up the cognitive cost of self-control.

I was in an absolutely packed three day management meeting in Madrid. Travel, time differences, lots of people, lots of subjects, lots of personalities and inevitably a certain amount of self-control required to navigate with aplomb. Surely the perfect tee up for one of my incongruous blasts. But this week I didn’t do it.

Of course I was tempted. Tired, hot, periodically irritated and regularly in receipt of the ‘gift’ of feedback, a good put down or an acerbic ‘reality check’ was sorely tempting for a sore ego. But I didn’t do it. Instead, I applied what I have learned in recent months and years: watch my energy, leave other people’s stuff alone if it doesn’t really concern me, avoid tangling unnecessarily. Best of all though, I stumbled upon some humour.

Humour in big meetings is a delicate balance. People are often more ready to laugh ‘at’ you than ‘with’ you. As Aristotle rightly points out there is a fine line between ‘boor’ and ‘buffoon’. But a winning smile and an amusing turn of phrase was sometimes all it took to lift the mood when the whole room was just as ‘ego depleted’ as I was.

The net result? I left with the job done – feeling tired, but cheerful – and with smiling goodbyes all round. Much better than angry with myself, diffident and apologetic for unnecessary barbs.

In sum, a moment of laughter tops up a depleted ego far more effectively than a verbal headbut – however tempting…

One thought on “Laughter

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