How Improv Promotes The Positivity We Need Right Now

According to award-winning psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson, positive feelings — such as happiness, joy, love, fulfillment, awe, or amusement — as well as satisfying, meaningful activities strengthen resilience to the negative effects of stress.This occurs as a result of what she calls the “broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions”.

Her research shows that positive emotions widen the array of the thoughts and actions that come to mind. The idea is that positive emotions engender more awareness of connections between ideas, an expanded pool of possible choices and richer creative options. We do better, the theory goes, because we see better. We notice, and listen, and have more energy to take up the opportunities we now perceive. Negative emotions, like fear, anger or sorrow narrow our field of attention, probably because they are closely linked to the fight-flight-freeze stress response that is necessary for survival. When we are running from danger or engaged in an important conflict, our brain and body are intensely focused on eliminating the threat, which is fine when we need to get out of the path of an incoming punch, but not so great when the punch is psychological or emotional. “Positive emotions are unique and adaptive because, in the moment, they broaden people’s thought–action repertoires,” writes Fredrickson, “and, over time and through such broadening, they build people’s enduring physical, social, intellectual, and psychological resources.”

Great, if you can get, you know, happy. But what if happy feels out of reach? Can good, happy emotions be generated? And are the ones we generate through effort helpful? The negativity bias is a real phenomenon linked to a biological imperative and the whole idea of consciously “inducing” positive emotions as a way to cultivate mental health seems revolutionary. Not only is therapy focused on dysfunction and disorders, this is a tough old world and we never know when we are going to be up against a hard truth that hurts going down and changes everything. There are heartaches we won’t see coming. There are times so dark that getting to a state of unhappiness would be considered a blessed relief from grief or despair. But the theory and practice of Positive Psychology is not a denial of the very real pain of life. It is — to use a fundamental concept of improvisation — a way to say “yes” to the realities we face, followed by the “and” which is mining our own strengths in order to shape them.

Improvisation is a model that may be a way to understand how this theory can be applied in real life. Improv occurs when a group of people- who may or may not have any deeper interpersonal connection beyond the creative collaboration — agree to support one another through a process of great uncertainty. To make that dynamic process even possible, improvisers must generate good will, humor, warmth and a high energy that drives spontaneity. If anyone is going to take a creative risk — which is, in the end, putting our ideas and our sense of self on the line and therefore a genuine emotional risk- there must an atmosphere of support and sense of trust. Improvisers develop the positive emotions through the action. It is real life writ large, with the interesting wrinkle that an authentically positive emotional climate is being manufactured. It is being orchestrated. And it works. Through warm-up games and exercises that unify the body, emotions and thinking process, improvisers shift their attention toward a common cause and away from suffering and pain, and even though that shift may be temporary it is real. Improvisers lose some of the defensiveness we all carry around that inhibit our self-expression, and engage with a creative uncertainty that activates the reward circuitry of the brain and makes the experience self-rewarding. The positive emotional climate in the group yields novelty and invention, broadening the field of perception and building on them.

Creative activities, whether solo or in a community, activate the brain’s sense of reward in a way that makes us want to do them again and gain more mastery, which in turn increases the enjoyment and desire to continue. And its not so much about being happy at any given moment as it is about knowing we can be unhappy about some difficult life circumstances and at the same time engaged in something that makes us feel good. As a psychiatric inpatient I treated years ago once told me after a long afternoon in which the group improvised a sad, serious but often hilarious play and wrote a theme song, “even when your life is falling apart, you can still have a really good day.”

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, CPAI is a consultant/trainer, singer/songwriter, writer/performer and creative arts therapist. She will co-facilitate Happiness Skills: Applying The Principles Of Positive Psychology Through Improvisation with Phoebe Atkinson, LCSW, Certified in Positive Psychology on Sat. Nov. 17, 2018, 1–5 pm at Lifestage, Inc in Smithtown NY. Click on the workshop title for complete information.