Changing Your Personality: An Atlantic writer pursues happiness in Improv

Olga Khazan
 The March issue of The Atlantic is their happiness issue. In it the magazine promotes it’s “In Pursuit of Happiness” event in May as well as having articles on finding satisfaction, maintaining friends, and how to become less unpleasant. The article on becoming less unpleasant by Olga Khazan is entitled, “My Personality Transplant.” In it, the author says that she never really liked her personality, and other people didn’t like it, either. She described taking an online personality test of the five major personality traits that pretty much supported what she already knew about herself. She is highly introverted, scores high on conscientiousness, average on agreeableness, and extremely high on neuroticism. Individuals with high scores for neuroticism are more likely than average to be moody and to experience such feelings as anxiety, worry, fear, anger, frustration, envy, jealousy, guilt, depressed mood, and loneliness.

Khazan embarked on a plan to see if she could, indeed, change her personality. She writes in her opening paragraph, “One morning last summer, I woke up and announced, to no one in particular: ‘I choose to be happy today!’ Next I journaled about the things I was grateful for and tried to think more positively about my enemies and myself… Then, to loosen up and expand my social skills, I headed to an improv class.” (emphasis mine)

Wait, what? An improv class? That’s right, in order to change her personality to be move agreeable and likable, the author chose to take an improv class. This is what I’ve been telling family, friends, obscure Facebook acquaintances for years. In August of 2021 I wrote a blog with the title, “It’s Not About Being Funny, It’s About Being a Better You.”  In that blog I talked about the five personality traits and how improv can help you build on the positive aspects of each. And, yes, improv can help a person deal with stress and decrease their neuroticism scale. Do you Olga Khazan read my blog and that’s where she got the idea!? Doubtful, but something fun to ponder.

Neuroticism is our predisposition to psychological stress. We get stressed about failure, about looking foolish, and about losing love and affection. Improv teaches to let go of being right, to embrace the ambiguity, face the fear, and risk failure. We learn that even in failure we are given a gift that allows us to adapt and grow. Some of the best improv comes after someone fails or screws up. The audience loves it when someone gets up from a flop and carries on. We learn in improv to laugh at ourselves.

I first discovered improv in the 90’s when I took a class with other clergy from my diocese. We wanted to be more comfortable speaking extemporaneously and, also, I was a theater geek and thought it would be fun. I stopped taking improv after several rounds of workshops. I didn’t take it up again until 2004. By this time my life had been completely upended. I came out, got divorced, lost my job, and was pretty much broke doing the only work I could find, being a barista at Starbucks. I needed something in my life to help me cope. It turned out to be improv. I found a new community, made the best friends I’ve ever had, learned that failure doesn’t kill you, and discovered that I can make something good out of the mess I found myself in. Improv saved me.

Now I’m not saying that improv will save you. Khazan isn’t saying improv changed her into a completely different person. She did write that she started out thinking she would hate improv, but she ended up surprising herself. She wasn’t bad. She wrote, “I didn’t hate it. I decided I could think of being funny and spontaneous as a kind of intellectual challenge.” Improv can be scary and intimidating at first. But it’s the act of going outside our comfort zone and risking failure that gives us the strength and courage to face the messiness of life. You know the old joke; a person is lost in New York and asks a taxi driver “how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”  The driver responds, “practice, practice, practice.”  Well, many of us pray for a change in our life. We seek counseling, read self-help books, attend seminars all in the hope of being more comfortable in a VUCA world. (VUCA is an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) All those things are good and helpful, but if you really want to make a change, it takes practice. What better place to practice than with a small group of friends who are in the same boat as yourself? Khazan finishes her article by writing, “Surviving improv made me feel like I could survive anything, as bratty as that must sound to all my ancestors who survived the siege of Leningrad.”

Want to sharpen your brain? Forget Wordle or Sudoko, take an improv class. Want to reduce your blood pressure? Hang out with friends and laugh more. Wish you were more gregarious or empathetic? Learn the
 

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