Borrowing a Big Idea from Improv Comedy to Master Life

By Dr. John Schinnerer

One of the best ways to heal from pain and deal with the vicissitudes of life is laughter.  Over the years, I have made a conscious decision to be quicker to laugh; to be more open to poking fun at my self and to seeing the humor that is all around me.  And research has shown the benefits to doing so are massive – less depression, less anxiety, better cardiovascular health, higher quality relationships and more satisfaction with life.

One of the ways I’ve cultivated more laughter is by going to see live improv comedy as often as I am able. I’ve been to see Whose Line is It Anyway live several times. I go to stand up comedy clubs. I seek out top of the line comedians like Kevin Hart, Christopher Titus, Louis C.K. Sarah Silverman and more. I’ll even go with my teenage children to  watch improv at their high school.  The last time I went, I was really amazed how often I laughed at the teenagers – teens who had little comedic training or experience.  And this made me wonder, “How do improv actors build on other actors’ lines to create laughter?”

The answer is that improv relies on building upon whatever the last person who spoke provides you.

Imagine you are on stage performing improv comedy: It is your turn to speak next in a ridiculous scene where you are at a dentist trying to numb up a patient with a shot of novocaine. The patient is nervously waiting for the shot and asks you how often you use the laughing gas. For improv to be successful and funny, you must build on that premise. You don’t question it. You don’t negate any part of the scene. You build upon it. So, one possibility is to tell the patient that you had a large dose of laughing gas that morning and you begin to act drunk; shooting the novocaine into your own arm, and then your leg, and then you have a numb arm and leg (a la the classic Carol Burnett sketch).  The main rule is that you build upon what came before.

This is seen in daily language as “Yes, and.”

As in…

“Yes, I hear you, AND have you tried this?”

“Yes, I would like to go to the movies, AND I’d like to see a comedy.”

This approach draws other people closer to you, gets you engaged in life and generates stories which you can share with others, particularly when you say yes to fun activities with friends and family that lay just on the other side of your comfort zone.

On the other hand, one of the thoughts that fuels depression and pessimism is ‘Yea, but…” I hear this frequently with certain clients who are anxious, angry or depressed. For example…

“Yea, but I’ve tried all those things.”

“Yea, but that will never work for me.”

“Yea, but I could never do that.”

“Yea, but that’s too much work.”

As I’m teaching certain clients proven tools that could alleviate their suffering, they are ‘yea, butting’ me. This error in thinking prevents people from actually trying new tools which could improve their lives. It shuts down the flow of ideas. It kills conversations. And it keeps people safely in their comfort zone. Unfortunately, real personal growth only happens outside of the comfort zone.

Here are some examples of better ways to reframe these ‘Yea, but…’ statements:

“Yes, I tried that before. And perhaps I didn’t grasp it entirely. I’m going to try it again!”

“I haven’t had much success with that. And I know people don’t always learn on the first try. I’m open to another attempt.”

“I haven’t done that in the past.  However, what I’ve done in the past hasn’t worked so well for me. Let me try something different. I’ll give it a shot!”

“It seems like that will take some work. And no change has ever come without effort and perseverance. I’ll try it!”

In the 2008 comedy, Yes Man, Jim Carrey plays Carl, an introverted, pessimistic single guy with a dead end loan officer job (the ‘Yea, but’ guy).  Carl hides from life and friends in his apartment until he attends a personal growth seminar with a ‘Yes Guru,’ Terrance. Carl makes a reluctant ‘covenant’ with Terrance to say ‘Yes’ at every opportunity. And this simple change to ‘Yes, and’ transforms his life. Carl has a series of adventures which make his life more interesting and fulfilling – even when the story isn’t altogether pleasant. When life hands you an invitation, accept the invitation.

Life is all about the story. Today’s story may be good or it may be bad. Regardless, it’s an interesting, emotionally-compelling story to share with those you love.  And stories are the main way in which we connect with others. And connection is key.

So try saying ‘Yes, and’ to life. Pay attention to what you say for a week. When you hear ‘Yea, but’ change it to ‘Yes, and’. It takes practice. It will push you out of your comfort zone. This one tiny change has lead to impressive improvement in the lives of many of my clients. Try ‘Yes, and’ for yourself for one week. Be a Yes Man (or a Yes Woman). Your future self will thank you for it down the road as you will be significantly more satisfied and happier with life.

 

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling – The ‘How’ of Creativity

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling
These rules were originally tweeted by Emma Coats, Pixar’s Story Artist. Number 9 on the list – When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next – is a great one and can apply to writers in all genres.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Self-acceptance – the secret to a happier life and the least practiced happiness habit

 

March 7, 2014

The secret habit for a happy life - self-acceptance, self-compassion Dr. John Schinnerer
Self-compassion the secret and least used happiness habit

Happiness is related to greater success at work, more resiliency, less burnout and stress, more satisfying relationships, increased creativity, intelligence and flexibility of thought, improved immune system functioning and greater productivity. Happiness is more than a mere emotion; it is a habit we can improve with specific daily practices.  Science is showing that some habits cultivate more happiness than others. One of the most powerful habits for happiness and life satisfaction is self-compassion, or self-acceptance. Yet this is also one of the most secret habits, one that is least likely to be practiced.

The non-profit organization, Action for Happiness, in collaboration with Do Something Different, asked 5,000 people to rate themselves between 1 and 10 on ten habits. These ten habits have been shown in the latest scientific research as being instrumental to happiness and well-being.

The top ten habits, according to science, are…

Being kind to others (giving)

Being around others (relationships)

Physical exercise

Appreciation of the world around you

Learning new things (approaching the world with curiosity)

Goals (having significant direction in life)

Resilience (finding ways to bounce back from challenge)

Positive emotions (awe, joy, love, contentment, relaxation, etc.)

Meaning (having a purpose in life)

Acceptance and self-compassion

 

Kindness is the Most Practiced Habit

Of these valid approaches to happiness and satisfaction, most of the participants report being kind to others most frequently. And this is the most reliable way that science knows of to boost your mood to a positive place…do something kind for someone else. And fortunately, many people report doing kind acts quite frequently (7.41 out of a possible 10).

Being around others, or relationships, was a close second. Participants were asked, How often do you put effort into the relationships that matter most to you? The average score was 7.36 out of 10. And 15% of people scored the maximum 10 out of 10.

Most excitingly, the survey also looked at which habits are most closely linked to people’s life satisfaction. All 10 habits have been shown in studies to be strongly linked to life satisfaction.

 

Self-compassion Trumps Them All

What you may NOT know is that self-compassion, or self-acceptance, is the habit that predicts happiness most strongly. Unfortunately, self-compassion is also the least frequently practiced habit. Self-compassion was the lowest average score from the 5,000 participants (average rating of 5.56 out of 10). Only 5% of people put themselves at a 10 on the self-compassion habit. Around one in five people (19%) scored an 8 or 9; Less than a third (30%) scored a 6 or 7; and almost half (46%) of people rated themselves at 5 or less. We are not taught to be self-compassionate. We are not taught to be self-accepting. I would argue most of us are socialized in the opposite way…win at all costs, strive to be the best, you are not enough, you are not worthy, never be satisfied. This must change. And there are proven practices to do just that.

But I digress. Let me return to the study findings.

Physical exercise is another highly rated happiness habit. Yet this one came up relatively low as well. The average answer to How often do you spend at least half an hour a day being active? was just 5.88 out of 10, with 45% of people rating themselves 5 or less.

Professor Karen Pine, a University of Hertfordshire psychologist and co-founder of Do Something Different, stated: “Practicing these habits really can boost our happiness. It’s great to see so many people regularly doing things to help others — and when we make others happy we tend to feel good ourselves too. This survey shows that practicing self-acceptance is one thing that could make the biggest difference to many people’s happiness. Exercise is also known to lift mood so if people want a simple, daily way to fee happier they should get into the habit of being more physically active too.”

Dr Mark Williamson, Director of Action for Happiness, reported: “Our society puts huge pressure on us to be successful and to constantly compare ourselves with others. This causes a great deal of unhappiness and anxiety. These findings remind us that if we can learn to be more accepting of ourselves as we really are, we’re likely to be much happier. The results also confirm us that our day-to-day habits have a much bigger impact on our happiness than we might imagine.”

 

So how can we practice the self-compassion habit?

Here are three positive actions shown in research by Kristin Neff from University of Texas, Austin, that people can take to increase their levels of self-compassion:

  • Be as kind to yourself as you are to others. Speak to yourself as if you are 4 years old when you fall short or make a mistake. See your mistakes as opportunities to learn. Notice things you do well, however small.
  • Ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you what your strengths are or what they value about you (and let them know of their strengths too!)
  • Spend some quiet time by yourself. Tune in to how you’re feeling inside and try to be at peace with who you are. Remind yourself “I am worthy. I am worthy of love. I am worthy of success. I am worthy of happiness.”

 

Key Survey Question Average score (Frequency of engaging in habit)

  • Giving How often do you make an effort to help or be kind to others? 7.41
  • Relating How often do you put effort into the relationships that matter most to you? 7.36
  • Exercising How often do you spend at least half an hour a day being active? 5.88
  • Appreciating How often do you take time to notice the good things in your life? 6.57
  • Trying out How often do you learn or try new things? 6.26
  • Direction How often do you do things that contribute to your most important life goals? 6.08
  • Resilience How often do you find ways to bounce back quickly from problems? 6.33
  • Emotion How often do you do things that make you feel good? 6.74
  • Acceptance How often are you kind to yourself and think you’re fine as you are? 5.56
  • Meaning How often do you do things that give you a sense of meaning or purpose? 6.38

 

A final question posed was: Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?

The average score was 6.49, compared to a national average of 6.34 reported in the UK National Values survey 2013.

For more info on happiness, well-being and positive psychology, check out my newest site at HowICanBeHappy.com.

To life, love and laughter,

Dr. John

Dr. John Schinnerer
Positive Psychology Coach
Anger Management Specialist
Founder, Guide to Self, Inc.
913 San Ramon Valley Blvd. #280
Danville CA 94526
Positive psychology blog: http://DrJohnBlog.GuideToSelf.com 
Anger management blog:
http://WebAngerManagement.com
Twitter: @johnschin

 

Source: University of Hertfordshire. “Self-acceptance could be the key to a happier life, yet it’s the happy habit many people practice the least.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 March 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140307111016.htm>.

 

How Can I Be Happy? What Science Tells Us About Happiness

The Expert… Richie Davidson: What Science Teaches Us About Well-Being

One of my research heroes is the prolific Richie Davidson. He has an article in today’s Huffington Post… “What Does Science Teach Us About Well-Being?”

Here are a few key excerpts:

As we finalize our preparations to receive His Holiness the Dalai Lama for a dialogue on Global Health and Well-being, an event co-sponsored by the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the Global Health Institute, both at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it is appropriate to reflect on what science is teaching us about well-being.

1. Well-being is a skill.

By conceptualizing well-being as a skill, we appeal to modern insights from neuroscience where the study of neuroplasticity has informed us that the mind and brain are highly changeable and that the brain is constantly being shaped by experience and training.

Positive psychology coaching w john schinnerer phd
Happiness & well-being are skills that can be learned

Viewed from this perspective, well-being is the product of skills that can be enhanced through training and is also subject to environmental influences that impact our brain, especially over the course of development.

2. Well-being is associated with specific patterns of brain activity that influence and are influenced by the body.

Recent findings establish that specific patterns of brain activity involving the prefrontal cortex and limbic (below the cortex) regions are associated with reports of well-being.

Brain patterns associated w happiness
Positive psychology can lead you to a happier brain and mind.

Through this bidirectional communication between the brain and body, pathways have been identified that provide the beginnings of an understanding of why our emotional and physical health are intimately intertwined.

3. Equanimity and generosity both contribute to well-being and are associated with distinct patterns of brain and bodily activity.

The Dalai Lama has frequently urged us to be kind toward others and has suggested that kindness is a direct route to happiness.

Modern research has borne this out and indicates that kindness and compassion toward others is associated with peripheral biological (i.e., biology below the neck) changes that are salubrious.

Equanimity can be cultivated through simple contemplative practices and is associated with being attentive to the present moment and not getting lost in worrying about the future and ruminating about the past.

Modern research indicates that the average adult American spends nearly 50% of his waking life mind wandering–not paying attention to what he is actually doing.

average adult spends 50% of time with mind wandering
The average U.S. adult spends 50% of time with mind wandering

By learning to remain aware of the present moment, we can free ourselves from being slaves to the past and future.

Experiments have been conducted in which participants are randomly assigned to one of two groups–in the first group, they are provided with money and told to go out and spend the money on themselves and to purchase things for themselves only; in the second group, they are provided the same amount of money as the first group but they are told to spend the money only on others.

Since I’m writing about this, I’m sure you can guess which group showed much greater increases in happiness over the course of the day–of course, it was the group instructed to spend the money only on others.

Another amazing thing about generosity and kindness is that a growing body of evidence suggests that such behavior is good for our biology.

It helps to reduce inflammation and the molecules responsible for increasing inflammation.

4. There is an innate disposition toward well-being and prosocial behavior.

Organisms orient toward stimuli and situations that promote well-being.

how can i be happy? learn positive psychology with john schinnerer phd

Moreover, recent research indicates that human infants in the first six months of life show a preference for prosocial and cooperative situations compared with aggressive and antagonistic ones.

If this indeed continues to be replicated across a wide range of cultures, it would invite the view that we come into the world with an innate preference for good and we obscure that innate propensity over the course of development as we become socialized within our modern culture.

When we engage in practices to nurture compassion, we are not really learning a new skill so much as unlearning the noise which is interfering with our ability to connect with a fundamental innate core of goodness.

As these ideas become more widely known and appreciated, it is my fervent aspiration that our culture will pay more attention to well-being, will include strategies to promote well-being with our educational curricula and within the healthcare arena, and will include well-being within our definitions of health.

To life, love and laughter,

 

 

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Positive Psychology Coach

Author of the award-winning Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion & Thought

Guide To Self, Inc.

913 San Ramon Valley Blvd. #280

Danville CA 94526

(925) 575-0258

Get a free copy of John’s award-winning self help book at GuideToSelf.com

WebAngerManagement.com – 10-week online anger management course

DrJohnBlog.GuideToSelf.com –  Awarded #1 Blog in Positive Psychology by PostRank, Top 100 Blog by Daily Reviewer

@johnschin – Twitter

New Positive Psychology eMagazine Coming – ‘Happier: Positive Psychology for All’

Happier - Positive Psychology for Everyone

The latest in positive psychology made accessible for everyone. Learn the latest in happiness, hope, humor, realistic optimism, positive relationships,  the impact of music on mood, cultivating positive emotions, gratitude, contentment, character strengths, resiliency, well-being and more.

Learn how to be happier with less.

Positive Psychology eMagazine for Amazon Kindle – Happier by John Schinnerer Positive Psychology Coach Danville CA

Get your free issue now by clicking on the link above.

To life, love and laughter,

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Positive Psychology Coach, Speaker, Author, Entrepreneur

Author of the award-winning Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion & Thought

Guide To Self, Inc.

913 San Ramon Valley Blvd. #280

Danville, CA 94526

GuideToSelf.comWeb site

WebAngerManagement.com – 10-week online anger management course

DrJohnBlog.GuideToSelf.com  Awarded #1 Blog in Positive Psychology by PostRank, Top 100 Blog by Daily Reviewer

@johnschinTwitter