The Wisdom of Improv: 6 Principles to Enhance Your Happiness and Well-Being

Last month, I was thrilled to offer a workshop on improvisation (or improv) at the live retreat of my science of happiness program in Akumal, Mexico.  It was amazing to meet our professor, Tal Ben-Shahar, and 60 other happiness journeyers from all over the world who are part of the Happiness Studies Academy community for a beautiful weekend on Riviera Maya.

The retreat combined learning and community, as we deepened the relationships we had developed through the program’s weekly live webinar sessions. We engaged in deep learning through lectures, workshops, and small-group discussions. We also experienced a beautiful twilight Mayan spiritual ceremony and enjoyed painting on the beach. On the lighter side, we went snorkeling to see the sea turtles in the famous Akumal Bay, learned how to salsa dance and shared many delicious meals together.

My improv workshop exemplified the spirit of the retreat. We combined learning and community-building and had a lot of fun in the process.  I was very inspired by the book Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Madson, a renowned  improv teacher and writer. Madson not only teaches the principles of improv but also goes below the surface to demonstrate the wisdom of living a life in accordance with those principles.

Let’s take a look at what is improv, how it contributes to happiness, and how to apply the principles of improv to your life.

What is Improv?

Improv is a metaphor and a system for saying Yes to Life and showing up for it. Improv is also a skill set that can enhance your sense of well-being:

  • It’s a way of shaking up rigid patterns of thinking and behaving to be more spontaneous and present.
  • It’s a way to express yourself.
  • It’s a way to connect with others in a more immediate way.

We started the workshop with an introductory exercise called “Word Ball” so that our participants could experience improv first before learning about it:

Exercise: Word Ball

– Make a circle
– Start with a common word  like “Apple” 
– As you say the word, pretend to throw a ball to someone on the opposite side of the circle
– That person pretends to throw the ball to another person while saying a word that relates to apple
– Keep throwing the pretend ball and saying a word that relates the word you just heard until everyone has a chance!

You can see how Word Ball works in practice from this video.

Our group had a wonderful time with this exercise. Because improv relies on clear communication, we divided up into language groups:

  • 2 in Spanish
  • 1 in English
  • 1 in Portuguese
  • 1 in Chinese

That got us off to a great start!

The Six Improv Principles

Madson’s book offers 13 maxims of improvisation.  Our teacher Tal has adapted these maxims into 6 principles that can facilitate greater happiness. Here are the six principles.

Improv Principle 1: Say Yes

We experienced the first improv principle of “Say Yes”.  by playing “Yes, and…”

“Yes And” is one of the best improv exercises for developing trust. The exercise is very simple:

Exercise: Yes, and…

– First, one player makes a statement like “Let’s plan my birthday party!”. The next person responds with “yes, and…” and extrapolates and builds on the first idea . The idea is to agree with the person who just spoke and then develop the scene in a positive direction.
– Smile!
– Use your body to show us that you are welcoming positivity!
– No  “but”/No “no’s”!

Click here to see how “Yes, and” works!

Participants rely on each other to continue the story. Only by working together can participants finish the scene.

Through this lively exercise, our group members learned a lot from the cooperation necessary to keep the scene going: 

  • Listening
  • Staying in the moment
  • Not overthinking
  • Being positive
  • Making sense of what the situation is and going along with what the other person gives you
  • Building on the ideas of others and accepting their reality
  • Accepting what other people give you and not trying to change or control the situation

Some people found this exercise challenging. They worried that they did not know what to do because the situation was always in flux. Nor did they trust that they could contribute in the right way.  Yes,  improv can be hard, especially in the beginning. I simply asked everyone to remain open to the learning process and to remember that improv is a skill that improves with practice.

“Yes and” teaches us to:

  • Give up control to the power of the group
  • Take risks: it’s a leap of faith to go into a new area
  • Collaborate
  • Get comfortable with not knowing and trusting the group that it will all work out
  • Push yourself to experience something new/optimistic and
  • It is inherently optimistic because it empowers our capacity to create something new

Improv Principle 2: Pay Attention

In improv, you stay in the moment. You listen carefully. Instead of preparing an answer in your head before it’s your turn, you listen to what the person is saying and then add something that builds on what he/she offers to you. This is mindful listening. You do not need a plan. Simply turn your attention to what is happening in the moment. And trust yourself and your inner wisdom.

Now you might wonder, “What about planning?” Good question!  In fact, many situations in life require planning.

Take your airplane pilot or your heart surgeon.

They are trained meticulously to be precise in their work and they have a careful plan for how to fly that plane or operate on your heart. You don’t want them winging it when your life is in their hands!

And yet, when things go off plan, that’s when improvisation comes into play.

In fact, life is about planning and improvisation.

Improv Principle 3: Fail Often

A few of our participants initially were afraid to make a mistake. So I asked them to explain what actually happened when they made mistakes.

One woman said that she did not listen carefully enough in the “Yes, and…” exercise and said something that did not quite work. And the next person simply corrected the mistake and got the group back on track. So the “mistake” turned out to be a non-issue!

In another instance, the “mistake” led the group down a new path that turned out to be a lot of fun.

And that’s the beauty of a collaborative improv group: You look forward, not backward. And the group supports you in the process.

The “fail often” principle involves the Growth Mindset pioneered by Dr. Carol Dweck: the belief that you can change and grow your talent and intelligence. Talent and intelligence are the starting points of success and you can become smarter and more intelligent by using smart strategies, taking risks, making mistakes and learning from mistakes.

And in improv, when you make a mistake, you keep going and don’t worry about the mistake. You trust that things will work out. More on that when we examine the impact of improv on relationships

Improv Principle 4: Appreciate

Another aspect of improv is to see the positive and look for the gifts in the situation and to say yes to whatever comes your way. This is closely tied to our capacity for expressing gratitude and embracing the pleasurable emotions that come along with feeling gratitude.

Pleasurable emotions allow us to broaden our perspective. And improv is a great modality for helping to broaden that perspective.

Here are a few questions that can help you to broaden and build:

  • What am I grateful for?
  • What can I appreciate?
  • What gifts exist in my life?

These questions help you to build a better reality (vs. asking the kind of questions that only have you focus on the problems).

To quote Tal:  “When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates!”

Improv Principle5: Take Care

What does improv teach us about working with other people? How does improv improve our relationships with our partners, collaborators, teams, or other groups?

In improv, you take care of others and you make them look good. You compliment them. You are kind and generous to others. You watch out for the needs of your fellow improviser. You listen carefully and connect to what you hear. You work with enthusiasm and positivity.

That’s why improv enhances collaboration and teamwork: you aim for cooperation as opposed to competition. And you share control.

The “Take Care” principle also calls up some other improv principles:

  • We say Yes;
  • We pay attention to each other; and
  • We notice mistakes and we refocus on what is needed to keep going forward

And we adjust to reality: how it is rather than how you would like it to be.

Improv Principle 6: Have Fun

At this point, our participants were feeling very comfortable with improv.  So we put our knowledge into practice one more time with this exercise: write fortunes for fortune cookies.

Don’t you love reading the fortunes in Chinese fortune cookies?

These messages originally were translations of Chinese proverbs. They are often quite funny:

  1. “Some days you are the pigeon, some days you are the statue. Today, bring an umbrella.”
  2. “The fortune you seek is in another cookie.”
  3. “Your reality check is about to bounce.”
  4. “If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.”

Here’s the exercise:

Exercise: Write a new fortune for fortune cookies

– The first person says a word and the next person says another word until you have come up with a fortune.
– Once you have a fortune, everyone snaps their fingers. 
– Start over and keep going until you have created a few fortunes.

We had so much fun with this exercise that each group had multiple rounds of fortunes!

In fact, having fun has many benefits that enhance our emotional well-being by bringing up our pleasurable emotions:

  • It loosens us up
  • It enhances creativity
  • It makes learning easier and
  • It makes us more engaged and productive

In a group setting, having fun also enhances our relationships:

  • It cultivates our capacity to be open to others; and
  • We radiate positivity and make others feel better

Madson also shares the wisdom of play: Play is a way of approaching an activity; not the activity itself.

Ultimately, having fun depends on how you look at life, and improv can help you cultivate that sense of fun.

How Improv Enhances Happiness

In the HSA certificate program that I completed, Tal included improv as one modality for enhancing happiness. In fact, the principles of improv touch on each of the SPIRE elements that form the basis of holistic well-being:

Spiritual well-being:
Improv keeps you in the moment so that you notice the extraordinary in the ordinary. In addition, improv is optimistic and hopeful as the group creates together.

Physical well-being:
Improv is physically active and energizes your body. This, in turn, promotes greater mental well-being thanks to the mind-body connection.

Intellectual well-being:
Improv involves being open and curious about new learning. It’s a new way of thinking that enhances your capacity for learning since each improv exercise is a blank slate that allows you to learn.  Improv also calls up the growth mindset which allows us to accept failure and learn from mistakes.

Relational well-being:
Improv involves taking care of our fellow improvisers and helps us cultivate good relationships with others.

Emotional well-being:
Improv helps us to feel good, have fun, and enhance our pleasurable emotions. It also reminds us of the permission to be human and to accept all emotions that come up.

How To Bring Improv Into Your Life

Use the improv exercises

Improv exercises are a great way to spice up your next dinner party or family gathering. I introduced some of these at a recent family dinner and my skeptical relatives landed up having a lot of fun!

Improv exercises are also a fun icebreaker for team building and help people in a new group get to know each other and form trust.

Moreover, since improv enhances creativity, improv exercises are an excellent warm-up to brainstorming, visioning, or other idea-generating meetings. In fact, improv allows you to

  • Say yes to the ideas of others, instead of no, and then build on those ideas
  • Stay present to the ideas of others and resist the impulse to think ahead
  • You collaborate instead of competing which allows everyone to participate and contribute and
  • It shows the power of group creativity to generate better ideas and solutions by pushing beyond the obvious.

Leaders might want to consider using improv exercises as a way to foster greater happiness in the workplace.

Apply the improv principles

The principles of improv show us how to be more positive (say yes) and appreciate the good things in our life (appreciate),.  They encourage us to stay in the moment and allow ourselves to make mistakes and move on.  Through improv, we learn to trust the group process (fail often), be more collaborative (take care), and experience positive emotions and have more fun in life (have fun).

Think about which of these principles can help you to enjoy your life and your relationships! And then, take one action step to introduce this principle into your life.