Why Don’t You Laugh? Abraham Lincoln and the Seriousness of Humor


People sometimes tell me that they think their workplace is too serious for humor. I ask them if it’s more serious than the Civil War. This story about Abraham Lincoln shows how humor is vital even in the most serious of times.

Why Don’t You Laugh?

I work with a lot of engineers, project managers, and scientists on how to communicate more effectively using humor.

And from time-to-time, I get someone who is worried about humor because they think their work is far too serious to do something like “have fun.”

Ignoring the fact that using humor will actually help you do your job better while helping you enjoy it more, I’m always reminded of a story about Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was well known for his humor in, and out of the office, to the point that there are multiple books dedicated to the subject.

But my favorite story of Lincoln takes place during the Civil War.

The year was 1862. The United States was in the first year of the Civil War, a war that would result in more American casualties than any war before or since. A time when the country was on the verge of division, and battling one of the biggest civil rights concerns of all time—slavery.

Abraham Lincoln called together a special session of his war cabinet members to discuss an incredibly important topic. Every member of the cabinet was there, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Attorney-General, and more.

As people entered the room, Lincoln was reading a book and smiling to himself. Once the people were settled, Lincoln started the meeting by reading a humor story from the book. After reading it, Lincoln laughed aloud along with no one else. The room was silent. So Lincoln decided to read another story.

Again, silence.

But Lincoln didn’t waver. He didn’t apologize or feel like he made a mistake. Instead, he said,
“Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”

The next document Lincoln read, and the purpose of the meeting, was the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most important documents in this country’s history since the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Lincoln knew the value of humor, and knew that levity does not negate the magnitude or seriousness of a situation, but rather helps us through it.

So my response to people who claim their work is too serious for humor, I ask, is it more serious than the Civil War, or the abolishment of slavery?


The Story-Life of Lincoln by Wayne Whipple. The JC Winston Co, 1908



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2 thoughts on “Why Don’t You Laugh? Abraham Lincoln and the Seriousness of Humor”

  1. What? The civil war wasn’t about slavery at all… The emancipation was a military doctrine lol. Abraham Lincoln wasn’t a abolishinist. You should really look into the history before making false assumptions. But a nice mediocre read

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