The Unexpected Psychological Benefits of Improvisation

Take a quick scan across your local bookstore’s self-help and business section, and you’re likely to see plenty of literature promising to help you improve your personal and professional lives. Personality tests, behavioral checklists, and goal-setting workshops are just a few of the tools that claim to supercharge our understanding of ourselves and help us become the best versions of ourselves.

But what if there was a tool that could do all this and more? Recent research from Peter Felsmana, Sanuri Gunawardenac, and Colleen M. Seifertchas points to a surprising source of self-improvement – improvisational theater training!

In particular, the skills of divergent thinking, positive affect, and uncertainty tolerance – key elements of a successful improv performance – have been linked to a variety of psychological benefits, from reducing anxiety and depression to enhancing social engagement and confidence.

But what does this mean in practical terms? Can you actually learn to become a better, more confident version of yourself through improvisational theater?

All of Life is Improv

Before we take a look at the research behind these claims, it’s essential to understand a little bit of the philosophy behind improvisation – or ‘improv’.

Improv is based on the idea that all of life is an improvisational process. We are constantly responding to our environment in new and creative ways, making decisions with incomplete information, and embracing both the expected and unexpected. That’s why the skills developed through improv can be applied to all aspects of life – including personal and professional relationships.

For instance, by learning to focus on the present moment and cultivating our curiosity in others, we can become better listeners, more open-minded collaborators, and more confident leaders. We may also experience deeper joy within ourselves by embracing the improvisational nature of life.

Or think of those moments when you are caught off guard by surprise – when you are forced to think on your feet and respond quickly. In moments of insecurity or anxiety, improv can help calm your nerves, boost creativity, and reduce stress.

Improvisational Theater Training Improves Psychological Well-Being

But what does science have to say on this topic? In experiments conducted on the impacts of improv, researchers found that improvisational theater training can improve divergent thinking, increase positive affect, and boost uncertainty tolerance relative to other social interactions.

In the first experiment, researchers took a look at how building on basic actions with injected improv techniques can enhance outcomes. The exercises took participants on an iterative journey, which commenced with the simple task of chanting numbers and the alphabet in order. The energy amplified when improv’s classic ‘Yes, and’ rule was introduced, allowing them to continue building up each other’s ideas. This paved the way for a unique storytelling experience, where one word at a time crafted an intriguing narrative.

In a second experiment, scripted instructions were given to participants to measure the effect that improv had on performance. Though similar to exercise 1, the researchers gave further scripted instructions to participants on when and how to interact. 

Results showed that those who partook in improvisational theater performed better than those with scripted instructions, demonstrating improved divergent thinking, positive affect, and uncertainty tolerance. 

Researchers studied results in pre and post-surveys among participants in the areas of uncertainty tolerance, flexibility, originality, elaboration, and more. Among the results, those who took part in the improv element of the study saw their scores improve slightly over the control group.

In analyzing the results, the researchers found that the improv aspects of each experiment increased positive affect and reduced anxiety, suggesting that improvisational theater can boost psychological well-being. In their summary conclusions, they found that the benefits mirrored or exceeded those of other horizon-expanding experiences, such as traveling abroad or engaging in creative activities.

The Takeaway

Ultimately, improvisational techniques offer a unique and powerful tool for personal and professional growth. Not only can it help to reduce anxiety, but it can also increase our ability to think creatively, handle uncertainty, and develop positive relationships with others. This may explain the popularity of improv among students and professionals alike!

Whether you are an aspiring thespian or simply want to become a better version of yourself, improv is a wonderful way to improve your life. So don’t be afraid to let go and embrace the improvisational nature of life!