The Reasons Why People Who Take Improv Are Happier

October 24th 2015

You don't need to be an aspiring comedian to reap the benefits of improv. Many people take it to boost their self-confidence at work and beyond.

And research shows that it can have a positive effect on your mental health, with similarities to the benefits of therapy. Gordon Bermant, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, published a paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in 2013 that found parallels between the relationship of a psychologist and a patient and the relationship among improvisers.

A major improv guideline is to abide by the "yes, and" philosophy: Support everything your fellow improviser does in the moment. Bermant says this echoes how a therapist conducts herself in a non-judgmental relationship with a patient.

“The idea of a therapist holding a client in ‘unconditional positive regard’ describes a way of relating to others, which is close to the ‘yes, and’ affirmations of improv,” Bermant told The Atlantic. "The beauty of improv is that it is quintessentially a collective, cooperative form that rests completely on trust for the spark of creativity that can transport the players, briefly, into confidence-building interpersonal connections.”

Bermant's research also reveals that the uncertainty of improv can help people overcome fears and anxieties. Improvisers perform without the safety net of planning ahead. If they have an amazing performance anyway, "fear of failure loses its sting — a net of support is constructed from the openness, trust, and acceptance," Bermant said.

In addition to helping some people become more comfortable with failure, improv can also lower one's social anxiety and public speaking fear.

“For people who feel anxious socially, getting up in front of a crowd repeatedly would create an excellent opportunity to reduce their fear — no matter what the outcome,” Simon Rego, the director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center, told The Atlantic. “It will either turn out better than they thought so they'll feel less anxious next time, or, if it does not go well, they will learn that they can cope with it."

Even when you do have an unsatisfactory scene in improv, you're in a safe, judgment-free zone. If you suffer from anxiety and fail onstage in an improv set, you see that it's not the end of the world and that the others around you are learning the craft and failing during scenes as well.

“This thing [that people with anxiety have] dreaded for so long not only is not a disaster, it is an addictively positive experience,” Carl Robbins, director of training at the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute at the University of Maryland, told U.S. News and World Report last year. “If you see this as a way of facing your fears, this can be a big step for a lot of people.”

In 2014, Washington Improv Theater improv student Meredith Whipple said she went into improv to give herself a creative outlet. She didn't expect it to soothe her anxiety as well.

“I didn’t realize how beneficial it would be,” Whipple told U.S. News and World Report. “Being an anxious person, I’m often caught up in my own thoughts and not really in the present moment."

Because the present is all you have in improv, Whipple considers it an "exercise in mindfulness" and likened the experience to "playing games at an elementary school playground."

Child playing on the playgroundFlickr/dadblunders -

Whipple's classmate Alyssa Marciniak, who started taking improv to cope with her severe social anxiety, said that improv increased her self-confidence, made her more socially active, and allowed her to stop dwelling on her feelings of inadequacy.

“I’ve gone out and done stuff more than I have pretty much since I’ve been here [in Washington] in four and a half years," she said.

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