Improv Monster photo by Offhand Photography

Photo by Offhand Photography

 

There have been many times in my life when I could’ve seriously used some advice on how to be happier. If you’ve read about my teenage struggle with depression and self-injury, my months of being homeless, or my personal struggles right before I met Mary, you know the path to happiness hasn’t always been easy for me. But, around 8 years ago I made a decision that changed my life, and taught me the secrets to happiness I’ll share with you today.

It was late 2003. I’d filed for divorce in July after 18 months of marriage counseling, but we were still living in the same house due to financial issues. I was in a long distance relationship with a woman in Toronto, who broke up with me repeatedly out of fear things wouldn’t work out long-term. It was Christmastime, and I was lonely and miserable and unsure how to move on with my life. So I did what any (in)sane person would do: I signed up for an improv comedy class.

 

It might sound ridiculous, but in retrospect studying improv proved the perfect thing for me. It got me out of the house and out of my head. It allowed me to socialize with new people and laugh and be ridiculously silly. But, perhaps more importantly, it set me off on an 8-year journey of personal discovery that taught me how to be happier, more positive, more creative, and a better partner when the woman of my dreams eventually came along.

 

Improv_Monster_Photo_Offhand_Photography

Photo by Offhand Photography

 

LESSON #1- DON’T BE AFRAID TO FAIL

The first thing Chris Blair (my first improv instructor at Dad’s Garage Theatre in Atlanta) taught us is that failure is funny,  so don’t be afraid to fail.

In life, we may not want to think of our failures as amusing, but we should learn to look at our failures as essential growth experiences that make us stronger, smarter, and better able to avoid mistakes in the future. Nobody lives a life completely devoid of failure. It’s what we learn from mistakes, and how we rebound from them, that ultimately define us.

Once we learn to let go of that fear of failing and being judged by others, we gain confidence in our ability to overcome  those obstacles that inevitably pop up in our path. With confidence comes competence, which leads to fewer and fewer failures. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”

 

Improv_Monster_Offhand_Photography

Photo by Offhand Photography

 

LESSON #2- DON’T HAVE AN AGENDA

One of the biggest mistakes novice improvisers make is to come onstage with a pre-determined idea of how they want a scene to go. Unfortunately, both in improv and in life, while we may be the Captains steering our own ships, we ultimately have little control over the wind in our sails (or the people with whom we interact).

There are a zillion different factors that can affect the outcome of any given situation, and I spent a significant portion of my life being driven mad by the fact that the reality of what was didn’t measure up against my expectations of what SHOULD be.

You know the old Serenity Prayer about accepting the things you can’t change and having courage to change the things you can? It’s one of the toughest lessons to learn, but improv helped me realize that it was better to have a general destination in mind for where you want your life to go, while at the same time remaining flexible about the path you take in getting there.

 

Improv_Monster_Offhand_Photography

Photo by Offhand Photography

 

LESSON #3- LEARN THE POWER OF POSITIVITY  

Improv’s central philosophy is “Yes, and…” The idea is that, no matter what your partner says or does, you accept and build on it, piece by piece, gradually constructing something bigger and better together. “Yes, and…” doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything, but you do have to acknowledge and accept it before adding your 2¢.

The power of this approach is absolutely astounding, and its applications in life and business have proven incredibly valuable. When Mary got laid off in 2010 and was considering taking a low-paying job that would allow her to use her skills in assisting entrepreneurs with creative vision, together we brainstormed the idea that became Green Global Travel. She will likely make as much this year from GGT as she would’ve made working under someone else, yet she has more ontrol over her own schedule and financial destiny.

Before you say “No, but…” to something and dismiss it completely, take time to absorb it, investigating whether there is some kernel there that could be built and improved upon. Inevitably, this positive exchange of ideas, communication, communal collaboration and progression can help improve any relationship or business strategy.

 

Improv_Monster_Offhand_Photography

Photo by Offhand Photography

 

LESSON #4- STAY TRUE TO YOUR WANT

One of my biggest problems as an improviser was that I was a great listener, but all too often I would focus so strongly on my partner that I forgot to take care of my own character’s wants.

The “want” is our hopes, our dreams, our primary goals in life that we want to achieve. And, all too often, we allow ourselves to deviate from those wants because of various life circumstances. Improv taught me that you can (and should) acknowledge and be affected by the circumstances that surround you, adjusting to them with malleable fluidity. But, for the most part, you shouldn’t let them deviate you from your ultimate path.

As stated above, we don’t want to have a fixed agenda that turns us into super-controlling, type-A jerks. But keeping one eye on your ultimate destination as you navigate the various curveballs life inevitably throws your way allows you to stay focused and driven, adapting to circumstances without losing sight of your goals.

 

Improv_Monster_Offhand_Photography

Photo by Offhand Photography

 

LESSON #5- TAKE ACTION!

Another common mistake among novice improvisers is to sit (or stand) in one place, talking about things but not actually doing anything. In all but the most skilled and clever improvisers’ hands, lethargy= death. The same can be said of life!

One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is the opening to Pixar’s UP! For those who haven’t seen the animated classic, the silent scene shows a young couple who yearn to travel to South America, and put their change in a jar to save for their dream vacation. But life gets in the way, situations arise and, eventually, the female half of the now-elderly couple dies, never having realized their biggest want. Tragic, right?

There’s a saying in the ‘hood in which I grew up: “Don’t talk about it, BE about it.” I grow impatient when confronted with people who only want to moan and groan about their problems, but never seem to be able to find the cojones to actually DO something about them. In improv, we learn that audiences love to see performers doing things rather than talking about them, and the boldness of taking action almost always leads to more interesting and productive results.

Which leads us back to #1: Don’t be afraid! If you really, truly want something, you have to take action and go for it, approaching it from a place of positivity and remaining flexible as the inevitable obstacles pop up along the way. History favors the bold, the persistent, the patient and the determined. For me, these lessons I learned from improv taught me everything I know about how to be happier, and it’s made all the difference in my life and career.   –by Bret Love; photos by Shannon Jenkins of Offhand Photography

 

Special thanks to Jim Karwisch, John Sexton and the entire cast of Improv Monster, which was easily the most joyous performing experience of my life. 

 

 

 

 

37 Responses to How To Be Happier: 5 Secrets To Improvising Your Life

  • Bret, thanks for sharing this. It reminds me of my 9 life lessons I learned as a travel blogger post. I’ve had a lot of times to sit back and reflect lately. YOu took the time to share and reflect so I will share a little more about my life.

    When I was young, I was lonely and depressed. I didn’t have a lot of friends, never went out on dates, and just had a lot of bad luck. Years later, I grew very very bitter and it’s taken a long time to get over that. This past weekend, I spent hours taking a look at my personality. I am pessimistic by nature, not the most warm person in the world, but I also have a lot of positive qualities too.

    Honestly, none of these come natural for me as they go against my natural instincts that come with my personality. However, I’ve taken more chances and made a lot of strides. I’d like to think I am much better off as a person than I was when I was younger. The good news is I have a lot of years left to continue to grow as a person.

    • I can relate to a lot of what you said, Jeremy. I had a good number of friends in the high school where I grew up, but then my parents moved us out to a remote rural area where I knew no one. I became lonely, depressed, bitter and angry at my parents for snatching me away from the world I knew. I eventually got over it, but improv really helped me develop into a more positive and communicative person. I didn’t discover improv until I was 35, which just goes to show that it’s never to late to try something new, learn, change and evolve as a human being.

  • Another truly inspiring post man….great stuff. The one I’m taking along with me is the Dont Have an Agenda. I am constantly at odds with myself on the direction of this or that, and I need to learn to just accept what is, and improve upon it…

    • That may be one of the most difficult lessons I’ve ever learned, Deej. But learning it truly changed my life, particularly when it came to romantic relationships. I stopped trying to make situations into something they weren’t, and it made all the difference once I finally met Mary. It takes time, but these philosophies truly did make my life a better and happier place to be.

  • Natalie says:

    Number four is more specific for me. I spent years trying to be someone I could never be and as a result, turned into that type A jerk. So I stopped following mainstream media which tries to get us to focus on outer beauty and material things. Also distanced myself from many people, who would never accept the real me. The result, I am a lot more happier

    • That’s one I really struggled with as well, Natalie. I spent far too many years of my life being forced to live within someone else’s boundaries, which inevitably led to me rebelling against those constrictions over and over again. In relationships, I would try to be what I thought they wanted, only to become someone I didn’t even recognize. It was only when I finally realized that if someone didn’t accept me for precisely who I was, then they weren’t someone I wanted to be around, that I started living the happy life I have today. I’m sure some people would still say I’m a type-A jerk, but I’ve gotten really, really OK with that. Some people deserve to be treated like jerks.

  • This would scare me, just getting up on stage…but I really see how you took so much from this experience – it’s all about letting go!

    • Yep, it’s terrifying! The first few years I performed (in Atlanta’s most popular improv comedy theatre, no less) I would get terrible butterflies right before a show. But the release you get from it is almost like an exorcism– such a powerful and liberating adrenaline rush– that I got addicted to it. Even now, I miss the entertaining people aspect of it. Always such a joy to shake the audience’s hands after the show and see their beaming smiles.

  • Laurence says:

    Thanks for sharing Bret. I firmly believe in the power of positivity as a shaping force in our lives. I also hugely agree that actions, not talk, are what makes the change. Happiness comes from within, not from the outside. Being confident and focused about ourselves is key – If we believe in what we are doing and what we want from life, then we are unstoppable! Great post!

    • Thanks, Laurence! I thought you might dig this one, given your latest post. :-)

      I made a decision at the age of 19 to try to always focus on the positive in my life. The problem since then has been my tendency to try to “fix” those who immerse themselves in the negative. Luckily, the heartbreaking post-divorce relationship I mentioned in the piece broke me of that, and since then I’ve left the KISA (Knight In Shining Armor) Syndrome to other guys. Mary’s ability to remain largely positive even when aspects of her life were going to hell in a handbasket was a big part of my initial attraction, and now we’ve got a great 50/50 balance that has made me the happiest I’ve ever been!

  • Leigh says:

    Enjoyed reading this very personal post and learning how you have found ongoing happiness. I always say you can’t go looking for happiness – you have to get involved and do things you love doing and happiness will find you. That sounds to me exactly what happened with you through improv (a very scary profession in my mind).
    I think as I get older I get happier because it’s so much easier to put things into perspective. It doesn’t mean life is easier but the way I view life has changed for the better. And I’m all for taking action and putting a positive spin on the world around me – providing of course that I’ve had enough sleep.

  • Angela says:

    Great tips, they apply to anyone, I should stay focused on them more sometimes..

  • Ali says:

    Great post, Bret! It’s advise most of us could do well with following. I’m not always the happiest person either, and I definitely struggle to stay positive and focused on what’s important. But I’m constantly working on it, and it does get easier.

    I forget you live in Atlanta. I’ve been to Dad’s Garage once or twice, but there is another improv place I used to go to often on Spring Street around 15th or 16th, can’t remember what it’s called though. Always fun to watch!

  • Thank you for this personal, honest, inspirational post! Very cool.

  • Hi, Bret! ~

    I enjoyed this post — nice to meet you!

    I agree with everything you say here and, it seems, with your general life philosophy ;-)

    This post reminds me very much of a past post of mine which you might enjoy: ‘Improvapalooza’, which includes a hilarious youtube clip from Who’s Line Is It Anyway with Richard Simmons.

    Check it out when you have a chance — I look forward to future interactions with someone so positive and insightful!

    • I’ve actually seen that episode several times– pretty hysterical. It’s amazing the crazy stuff that people can come up with when they’re improvising. Improv has provided some of the biggest, deepest belly laughs of my life.

  • AvaApollo says:

    Awesome post! It’s so hard to find failure funny, but you’re right. I need to be less serious about life and just have fun.

    • It took me a looooooong time to learn that lesson, but it was extremely liberating once I did. I still have a hard time letting go of things sometimes (I come by my obsessiveness honestly), but I’m pretty fearless in general. I find that, without fear, I make a lot fewer bad decisions in my life.

  • I love the last secret; “Take Action”. I have struggled as well in the past (and still do) to find a passion to follow. I hope that our blog has changed that and it has given me a chance to express myself a lot more.

    • I have the exact opposite issue, Cole: Too many passions and not enough time to pursue them. There’s the writing, photography, video and travel we get to do with GGT, but I also love playing/writing music, performing improv comedy, swimming, basketball, mosaic tile and beadwork. I need a clone! LOL

  • Anna says:

    I love this post! It gives me power, because I’m freshly divorced. I hope I’ll get over as well as you did!

  • Fascinated to read about your experience with improv Bret. Doing things rather than talking about doing things – that’s so right!

  • Abby says:

    Learning how to fail is huge. I always tease my parents that by letting me do ballet instead of forcing me into team sports, which I loathed, never taught me how to lose. No locker room pep talk, “Ok, we lost this one, but here’s what we’re going to do next time.” Someone recently told me, “that’s why you travel! You fail all the time when learning a language, etc.” I might add that my being 35 and single has always taught me plenty of failure lol. Love these pics!

    • That’s funny! Mary never played team sports either, so I think she can relate. I was always super-competitive: I was an All-Star Soccer player for over a decade and played baseball and basketball as well before ultimately going into singing and acting. My daughter has gotten into volleyball, played 2 years now, and seems to really enjoy it. The fact that her team went undefeated two seasons in a row probably helped!

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  • Love this post and your take! I’m an actress and OMG- it’s been a really challenge to learn how to do improv. However, i really feel like being on the road teaches you how to improvise. The “Yes ands….” come much more naturally to me and it’s easy to nix an agenda when you don’t have expectation.

    But I really wish travel could teach me how to be better at improv! ha ha..

  • Melanie Murrish says:

    I have a tear in my eye Bret-I need to read some more of your posts but thanks so much for sharing this, I can relate to a lot of it and by connecting with people like you on facebook etc..(many of them travellers actually) I am beginning to find myself. I have a lovely husband and two fantastic daughters but inwardly I am dissatisfied with life-doing lots of reading/connecting to others to change my life and it is working little by little.x

  • “yes and” is such a simple and do-able replacement for “no but” – that shift in positivity can make all the difference!

    Awesome post!

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  • Kristina says:

    I started to read your blog and just couldn’t stop! :) I’m still reading the other of your blogs but just want to say thank you for sharing your thoughts. Just so important to sometimes realize what we have and how simply we forget that. I will share your link with my friends as I found it very interesting and helpful.

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