The physical and psychological benefits of mindfulness have been touted by meditation gurus, academics, scientists, and business professionals for decades. Mindfulness has been linked to psychological well-being, relationship satisfaction, and effective communication. In the large majority of studies, mindfulness was primed in participants through the practice of meditation or the technique of bringing awareness to the present moment. There has been a lack of research concerning other suitable mindfulness techniques or practices. This study aims to add to the existing literature by offering theatrical improvisation training as a worthwhile approach in the development of mindfulness.
The concept of mindfulness has been taught by Eastern religions for centuries but is currently experiencing a renaissance within the research community and the culture at large. While the term has its roots in Eastern traditions of meditation, the academic use of the word ‘mindfulness’ is mostly attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, and social psychologist Ellen Langer, who has focused mainly on mindfulness without meditation. Langer defines ‘mindfulness’ as ‘a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context’. She contrasts this with ‘mindlessness,’ defined as when we are ‘acting according to the sense our behavior made in the past, rather than the present…stuck in a single, rigid perspective…oblivious to alternative ways of knowing. Study after study has revealed the intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of mindfulness.
The research of Brown and Ryan (2007) reveals numerous benefits derived from both state and trait mindfulness on measures of psychological well-being. They have found that mindfulness can predict levels of self-awareness, self-regulating behavior, and positive emotional states. A clinical intervention among cancer patients revealed that an increase in mindfulness led to a decrease in patient stress and mood disturbance.
In the interpersonal realm, Langer and her colleagues have linked mindfulness with both marital satisfaction (Burpee & Langer, 2005) and interpersonal synchronicity. Carson et al. (2004) tested an intervention called mindfulness-based relationship enhancement and found an increase in relational satisfaction, closeness, autonomy, acceptance of one another, and a decrease in psychological and relationship distress. Communication scholars Burgoon, Berger, and Waldron (2000) attempted to draw the most direct connections between mindfulness and interpersonal processes. They found that the experience of novel situations (strangers, new cultures) and novel mediums of communication (CMC, unfamiliar languages) could produce more mindfulness in individuals. Researchers also looked at the effect of mindfulness on multiple interpersonal situations and found that mindfulness can improve an individual’s abilities in resolving conflict, creating effective disease prevention campaigns, reducing stereotypes, detecting deceit, and training employees.
The work of William B. Gudykunst creates the clearest link between mindfulness and successful communication within interpersonal/intergroup (1993) and intercultural contexts (1995). According to his theory of Anxiety/Uncertainty Management (AUM), mindfulness is the key ingredient in creating effective communication between parties. Many of the theory’s axioms specifically mention mindfulness as the way to manage levels of uncertainty and anxiety during communication. For example, Axiom 37 states, ‘An increase in our mindfulness of the process of our communication with the strangers will produce an increase in our ability to manage our anxiety and an increase in our ability to manage our uncertainty’.
Over the years, researchers have used multiple techniques to produce a mindful state in research study participants, but the options have been limited. The most common is the use of guided meditation techniques (Kabat-Zinn, 1994) that focus the individual on awareness of their breathing, the sensation in their body, and the sounds around them. This practice is meant to center participants on the present moment in order to induce a mindful state. Another common practice among recent studies is to prime participants for mindfulness by asking them to slowly eat a raisin, noticing the textures, tastes, and smells during the process. Cohen and Miller (2009) developed an interpersonal mindfulness training (IMT) program for psychology graduate students. After the intervention, they found a decrease in perceived stress and anxiety and an increase in social connectedness and emotional intelligence. Huston et al (2011) tested the addition of a mindfulness component to an introductory communication course and found an increase in the class’s level of positive reappraisal. Cohen and Miller (2009) and Huston et al (2011) used very similar techniques in their mindfulness training which centered around focusing participants’ awareness on the present moment. Even though one major facet of mindfulness is the creation of novel alternatives, no truly novel approach to mindfulness training has been utilized in over a decade.
The modern development of improvisational theater began in the 1950s when teacher Viola Spolin created improv games to help improve the social skills and self-esteem of disadvantaged children in Chicago. Improvisation developed as an avenue for performance due in large part to the work of Del Close in Chicago and Keith Johnstone in Canada and the UK. What began in the United States as a technique to improve interpersonal skills quickly became a performance tool that utilized the essential tenets of improvisation to create spontaneous theater. These tenets, still taught in improvisation classes today, include spontaneity, teamwork, connection, present-awareness, and openness to the ideas of others. Improvisation has been of interest to scholars for decades but, like the concept of mindfulness, it is experiencing a resurgence within the research community.
Much of the earliest research in this realm focused on musical improvisation, especially its use in jazz and classical composition. These early studies looked at the effects of improvisation on creativity and teamwork. Later scholars who studied musical improvisation found that expertise in improvisation led to a ‘releasing’ effect on creativity and divergent thinking by temporarily shutting down the ‘evaluation’ part of the brain.
A large majority of research in improvisation is in the world of group and organizational communication. Improvisation was first used as a metaphor to better understand group communication and teamwork and was later used as a practical workplace intervention. Kirsten and DuPreez (2010) found that improvisational theater exercises could be used as a team development tool to help create a workplace that is primed for innovation. Boesen and his colleagues used exercises from improvisational theater to improve the ability of pharmacy students to listen, observe, and respond to patient requests.
Recently, improvisation has been studied in the realm of applied psychology and therapy. A study by Gordon Bermant (2013) sought to connect improvisational concepts to the applied psychological concepts of embodiment, enaction, and unconditional positive regard. Veenstra (2009) provided a framework for the use of improvisational techniques in psychotherapy. Pintar et al. (2015) supported this by running a qualitative study of a 6-week introductory improv class and found that ‘improv does indeed have inherent therapeutic qualities.
In the last two years, scholars have begun making the connection between improvisation and mindfulness. A qualitative study by Romanelli et al. looked at the effects of a 3-month class on improvisation taken by social workers and therapists in Israel. Class participants reported an increase in therapeutic presence characterized by immediacy, self-disclosure, awareness of the present, and mindfulness. Richard et al tested an improvisational intervention on elite level figure skaters and found ‘small but imperative increases in a competition performance, perceived artistic performance, self-esteem, creativity, and mindfulness. While qualitative data linking improv and mindfulness exists, there remains a lack of quantitative data connecting the two.
The work of Jordana Cole seeks to make a direct, theoretical link between the improv principles of being present, co-creation, and heightening to the psychological constructs of interpersonal mindfulness, perspective-taking, and active constructive responding. Cole creates the necessary theoretical bridge between the work of Ellen Langer on mindfulness to the tenets of improvisation:
Langer describes the conditions needed to generate mindfulness: attunement and engagement to the present moment, openness to novel experiences, sensitivity to the existing context, and a focus on the process rather than the outcome. As improv has been described thus far as spontaneous, playful, generative, and ensemble-based, it can be viewed as meeting those conditions.
The work of communication scholar William B. Gudykunst labels mindfulness as the necessary ingredient to create effective communication in interpersonal, intergroup, and intercultural contexts. Cole’s work has opened the door for improvisation to become a useful and effective technique in increasing mindfulness. Cole’s hypothesis, however, has not received any quantitative backing. Therefore, the present study exists to provide quantitative data on the relationship between improvisational training and mindfulness.