Pam Victor of ‘Happier Valley Comedy’: How We Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness
Gratitude Walk: Take a walk and notice 10 things you’re grateful for. A warm breeze. The smell of fresh air. A well-tended garden. The shades of green of a leaf. The way the tree trunk feels. The sanitation workers who collect the trash. A rock wall. An electric-fueled car. The grace of a hawk’s flight. The ability to take a walk. If you have a dog, a Gratitude Walk is a lovely way to take care of your — and your dog’s! — mental and physical health at the same time.
As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post COVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”.
What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”?
One tool that ,each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about the “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness ” I had the pleasure of interviewing Pam Victor
Pam Victor is a professional improviser, author, teacher, happiness coach, and founder and president of Happier Valley Comedy, the first and only comedy theater in Western Massachusetts which provides regular shows, a full comedy training program, and the THROUGH LAUGHTER Program for professional and personal development…and happiness! Currently, she runs the remote resilience and self-care program The 30-Day Happiness Experiment. Pam is the author of “Baj and the Word Launcher: A Space-Aged Asperger Adventure in Communication” and co-author of “Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book.” Pam is a recipient of the 2019 New England Public Radio Arts & Humanities Award and a TEDx speaker. Pam is a nice person. She likes you already.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?
As an improv comedian, I’m trained to leap into the unknown and then just figure it out as I go along. Improv forefather Del Close said that doing an improv show is like building a 747 in mid-air. And that’s pretty much been my career path!
After 10 years of homeschooling, my older kid went off to college, leaving me effectively unemployed. So I leaped into the unknown in hopes that my dream to make a career in improv comedy would catch me. I launched the “‘Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?’ Experiment” where I gave myself one year to make a living exclusively through improv comedy. Spoiler: I met my dollar goal in six months, and a year later my company Happier Valley Comedy was born.
Fast forward a few years to March 13, 2020 when we closed down our physical space due to the pandemic. Improv is such a deeply in-person art form. The question became: “Could I make a living doing what I love exclusively online?” So I leaped again, and Happier Valley Comedy’s new online resilience and self-care program The 30-Day Happiness Experiment caught me!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
The most interesting story in my career has been a student who I call “My Most Difficult Student Ever.” She joined the second class I ever taught, so I was a very green improv teacher, still trying to figure out my authentic approach to improv, when she came along. This student stomped into the second class of the session literally yelling, “I hated the first class, but I’m back anyway because I refuse to quit!” When I asked her what she hated about it — after I picked my stomach off the floor — she said that she felt like she was extremely bad at improv. I was flummoxed because that was not at all how I viewed her work in class. She was learning improv. Plus, if anyone is “good” at something after one class, they probably don’t belong in that class. In my personal decades of experience as an improviser, I’ve become skilled at improvisation only through many, many, MANY “bad” shows! If those so-called bad shows made me a better improviser, were they really bad? The challenge was helping My Most Difficult Student Ever see it that way.
I could see that her inner critic was running the show…and in many ways, it was running — and ruining — our class because she was, let’s just say, extremely vocal about how much she hated the class. In trying to help her experience more joy and ease in the process of learning improv comedy, I developed a whole lessons around quieting the inner critic and following the path of pure creativity, joy, and ease.
I’d love to say that she was transformed over the course of that class, but that certainly wasn’t the case. On the last day of class, she took time out of our play time to apologize to everyone for being “so bad at improv.” My heart sank. I may have failed in getting her to view improv through the lens of acceptance and joy in the learning journey, rather than as something that you’re either “good” or“bad” at. However, I am so grateful for My Most Difficult Student Ever because she transformed my approach to teaching improv both for performance and as a vehicle for personal and professional growth. In fact, this experience lead to the creation of my original approach to improv, The Joy & Ease of Improv. Thanks to her, I developed effective techniques for quieting the inner critic, which ended up being the topic of my TEDx talk and is at the heart of every single lesson I teach.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Recently, a 25-year-old fellow improviser who was diagnosed with cancer shared this Kurt Vonnegut quote with me and I’ve been thinking about it ever since, “The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.” This quote sums my approach to improvisation (and life) as well. I define improv as “acceptance of the reality of the moment and the agreement to move forward together with positivity.” In order to get to place of acceptance, we need to quiet the internal messengers of unhelpful judgment that try to define a moment as “good” or “bad.” Just as we don’t know how an improv scene is going to move forward, we don’t know how life is going to move forward either. So often, the “bad” moments made me a stronger, more skilled person? So are they really bad?
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?
Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste” has clarified the lens through which I view American culture, history, and politics. My company is committed to using our resources in whatever way we can in order to actively working toward the dismantling America’s white supremacist society. Wilkerson’s book has been monumental in my education as someone committed to anti-racist work.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
My total focus right now is on developing and running The 30-Day Happiness Experiment. Originally, it was conceived as a single program where I introduced 20 daily resilience and self-care “Happiness Habits” to the group, and each person selected one or two to do every day for 30 days with lots of support and fun-making from me. As more cohorts moved through the program, it seemed like 20 habits was overwhelming. So I pivoted by dividing the program into two sections, one focusing primarily on 10 Resilience & Happiness Habits and the other on 10 Self-Care & Happiness Habits. There is some overlap between the two sections; for instance, gratitude practices are in both sections because it’s such a powerful tool for both resilience and self-care.
Although it means a lot of additional work, I find continually noticing how the program is going and making necessary adjustments to be an exciting way of doing business according to the tenets of improvisation. Like I said earlier, I define improv as “acceptance of the reality of the moment and the agreement to move forward together with positivity.” As I grow The 30-Day Happiness Experiment programs, it’s a process of noticing and accepting the reality of how it’s hitting people’s big, beautiful brains and hearts, and how it needs to be changed to more effectively help people, so they can collectively move forward with more joy and ease in their lives.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Oh gosh! I think pretty much everyone I’ve encountered has helped me achieve success running my company! I’m even grateful for the people who seem to impede my progress or make my job harder because they teach me a tremendous amount, like My Most Difficult Student Ever did.
With regards to my career, the one person who comes up most often in my gratitude practice is Happier Valley Comedy’s Artistic Director and General Manager Scott Braidman. If it hadn’t been for Scott’s leap into the unknown to join me in running Happier Valley Comedy, we never would have been able to open our own physical theater space. (Before that, I was teaching and performing in any place I could rent out affordably, from senior centers to pilates studios.) As the father of a young child, that leap was super scary for him. We had no idea if we could bring in enough revenue to cover two salaries. I’m grateful for Scott’s bravery and faith.
Scott is the yin to my yang. I’m so grateful for the way he continues to whole-heartedly show up for me and our company. I’m grateful that he and I share vision and values for HVC. On his first day of work, he sat across from me and joyful said, “Boy, we’re going to make so many mistakes together!” That was improviser-speak for, “We are going to learn and grown and laugh so much together.”
And we have! And still do!
Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?
Get out the gravy because I think gratitude is about thanks-giving. Literally, giving thanks for what we have in our lives. I personally don’t think there is any “right” or “wrong” way to be grateful. It’s important not to judge our gratitude practice or get too caught up in the details of how we practice. As long as we’re taking time to give thanks, we’re practicing gratitude.
Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?
I think there are lot of different impediments to why people do not feel gratitude. For one, humans come with a built-in negativity bias. It’s the fear-based reaction that is supposed to keep us safe from things like saber-toothed tigers and one-ply toilet paper. So it actually can be against our basic human nature to look towards the positive. That’s why gratitude is a practice. It’s something we actually have to practice!
Secondly, people may erroneously think that something has to be a ginormous big deal to warrant gratitude. That misplaced pressure interferes with feeling gratitude. The truth is, there is no “good” or “bad” gratitude. I invite the students to share what they’re grateful for at the beginning of every improv class. One of my favorites was when one student said, “I’m grateful for this piece of gum!” So simple. So joyful. So important for our collective intentions for positivity. When we take the judgment out of the practice, we invite more opportunities for gratitude.
I also believe another misconception that impedes gratitude is when people feel like something has to be “perfect” or “complete” to warrant giving thanks. And that’s simply not so. I can be grateful for something even when I find it to be imperfect or even just downright annoying. Imagine how grateful I will be when that thing is removed from my life too! In fact, to practice gratitude in the bumpy, rollercoaster journey is incredibly powerful and impactful in the most positive way.
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?
To me, gratitude is the practice of trained positivity. Humans are natural pattern-makers. When we look for the positives in life, we will find more and more examples of positivity in life. And as we all know, life can be pretty dang generous about providing negatives. If we’re looking for sucky stuff, life provides it in droves.
I’m not saying we should ignore the negatives in life. I think acceptance of the hard parts of life is crucial to our evolution as whole-hearted people. However because of human’s natural negativity bias, that muscle is already very strong. Gratitude helps us balance things out a bit more by strengthening the muscle of positivity.
When our positivity muscles are well toned, we’re able to move into situations with more good will and openness. So if a client is unhappy, for example, my gratitude practice helps me take a breath and appreciate how that situation will probably make my company stronger in the long run. Instead of countering the complaint with conflict, gratitude trains us to counter with connection and positivity. To be clear, this process isn’t easy. It takes a lot of training, which is why a daily gratitude practice is so important. We have to give our gratitude muscles regular workout, so they’re nice and strong to support us when we need them most.
Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?
As I said before, humans are natural pattern makers. Quite simply, gratitude helps us strengthen our ability to view the world in a more positive, productive, and healthy way. I’ve heard this element of mental health described like a file cabinet with each drawer labeled with a different emotion. When we open up the “sad” drawer, for example, we find all those sad files full of sad stuff. Anyone who experiences depression knows that it becomes the filter through which we view the world. Gratitude trains our brains to also open the positive well-being drawer where we’ll find all those yummy, happy-brain chemical files of examples of goodness in our lives. Gratitude trains our brains to be able to also see life through a more positive, productive, and healthy lens.
Ok wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness”. Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Morning Gratitude: Before your feet even hit the floor in the morning, take 30 seconds to think of five things you’re grateful for. They don’t have to be big or special. Anything you’re thankful to have in — or have had removed from — your life at that moment makes a good gratitude. Boom! The day is already off to a happier start with Morning Gratitude.
- Gratitude Stone or Shell: You might already have a pleasantly smooth small stone or seashell hanging around your house. If you don’t, now you have a worthy quest for your time outside! It should be a stone or shell that fits comfortably and feels good in your hand. Got a good one? Voilà! Now you have Gratitude Stone/Shell! Keep it on your desk, next to your computer, or in your pocket — wherever you’ll have several opportunities to touch it. Every time you pick it up, think of one thing — big or small — you’re grateful at that moment.
- Gratitude Walk: Take a walk and notice 10 things you’re grateful for. A warm breeze. The smell of fresh air. A well-tended garden. The shades of green of a leaf. The way the tree trunk feels. The sanitation workers who collect the trash. A rock wall. An electric-fueled car. The grace of a hawk’s flight. The ability to take a walk. If you have a dog, a Gratitude Walk is a lovely way to take care of your — and your dog’s! — mental and physical health at the same time.
- Dinner Gratitude: If you eat dinner with others, this nightly practice brings people together with a healthy ritual of positivity. Each person shares what they’re grateful for that day. Keep in mind that any gratitude is a good gratitude. (Don’t yuck anyone’s yum!) With Dinner Gratitude, we’re practicing positivity, non-judgment, presence, and the extremely powerful health-enhancer of heartfelt human connection.
- Gratitude Journal: At the end of each day, spend five minutes writing about one single thing that you’re grateful for. Write as many details as you can think of: What did it look like? Why do you feel grateful for this thing? How does it feel inside your body? Limit your writing time to only five minutes, so it doesn’t become an onerous task. The goal is to write in your Gratitude Journal each night. You may want to start by aiming for 30 nights. Then if you want to continue, you can keep writing until you fill your Gratitude Journal. It may be helpful to keep the journal on your pillow in order to provide a context cue to remind you to write before you hit the hay. When you’re having a particularly challenging time, reading through your Gratitude Journal provides even more well-being support as a reminder that there is much in your life to be thankful for.
To get more bang for your buck, make gratitude a mindfulness practice. The idea is to invite yourself into the moment to recognize what we’re thankful about. Rather than mindlessly tick off our gratitudes every day, bring presence into the process by engaging your mind and heart in selecting what you’re most grateful for at that moment. According to gratitude research, we gain more mental health benefits by switching up our gratitude list, so we don’t get into a rut of listing the same ol’ same ol’ every time. Even if “my friends” make a regular appearance in your gratitude list, dig deeper to come up with something specific about your friends in order to engage a mindful appreciation of the moment.
Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive?
When times are tough, I recommend a practice I call “Emergency Gratitude Fingers.” As quickly as possible, list on your fingers the 10 things you’re grateful for. Do it quickly in order to outrun the part of your brain processing the difficulty of the moment. The times when it’s most difficult to think of something to be grateful for are the times it’s most important to practice gratitude. If you have the thought, “I have nothing to be grateful for,” challenge yourself to find something teeny tiny to be grateful for. Like the ability to blink. Or breathe. Or read. Those teeny tiny things are pretty huge, aren’t they? Emergency Gratitude Fingers is like opening up another mental file cabinet in our minds, so we remind ourselves to step back and appreciate that there is still goodness in the world even when things are feeling really, really hard.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?
My dog is my gratitude guru. I hope that with enough practice, I can be as grateful for simple things as my dog is, like rolling in fresh snow, playing catch, someone coming home…
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Abundance is a movement that could bring tremendous good to the world. Rather than live in the American caste system, if we all lived as if there was abundant and infinite goodness in the world, I believe there would be plenty of everything for everybody.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
Happier Valley Comedy’s website at www.happiervalley.com is where all my work currently lives. To make gratitude a daily habit for more resilience, self-care, and joy, that’s where you can join me for the next 30-Day Happiness Experiment.
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!