How laughter really can be the best medicine

Over the past few years, it has become apparent that treating mental health problems such as social anxiety with pharmaceutical drugs is often unsatisfactory. Experts have been exploring effective non-drug therapies such as mindfulness, exercise, art and music therapy. Luisa Metcalfe talks of the benefit that improvisational theatre has brought friends of hers. 

Woman peeking between stage curtains, rear view. (Photo: Getty Images)

Improvised comedy (‘improv’) – in which performers act without scripts, prompts or planning – has experienced a recent surge of popularity with shows such as the hilarious Austentatious (improv in the style of Jane Austen) and toe-tapping Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, which won an Olivier award.

The shows demand a lot of the performers but the benefits are significant: thinking on your feet, working collaboratively, listening closely and building self-confidence. Now mental health specialists are taking note. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have linked doing improv with ‘enhanced wellbeing’ and, in 2016, the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health posited that group therapy based on improv concepts could help treat social anxiety.

 The Free Association comedy school and theatre in North London, which is open to anyone, aims to ‘unlock a sense of joy in improv’. According to co-director and teacher Mike Orton-Toliver, ‘Most of the students battle with shyness and introversion, but improv sets up a series of principles to reassure them that whatever they come up with will be embraced by the people listening to and working with them.’


  •  Dare to say yes. 

When you agree, you make the other person feel safe and that can open up the conversation.

  • Don’t shut anyone down.

To avoid this, don’t interrupt, don’t put them down and don’t cross your arms.

  • Make eye contact

It’s much easier for a person to share honestly if you look into their eyes as you listen to them.

  • Listen empathically

Be more interested in the other person’s ideas than your own. It helps you to learn and be more creative.

  • Allow yourself to fail

‘It’s all right to look stupid,’ says Nat Tsolak, founder of the School of Laughter in London. ‘We forget that other people are actually very forgiving.’

The central tenet is the ‘yes, and…’ rule: a performer comes up with an opening line, and their partner agrees with it and adds an idea of their own. Crucially, there is no such thing as a wrong answer or a bad idea. Strategy consultant Maxine Rosenthal, 39, found that taking improv classes after a painful break-up gave her a more relaxed outlook. ‘Saying “yes” means being open to possibilities and surprises. It gave me the confidence to realise you might not get the response you wanted, but that’s OK.’

Others compare improv to mindfulness. Becci Ride, 33, a production manager who studied improv to tackle low self-esteem, says: ‘In a scene, you are purely in the moment, unable to fixate on the future or past.’ Health researcher Muireann Kelly, 29, adds: ‘The supportive atmosphere in class fosters confidence – you realise it’s fine to be yourself. You’re encouraged to make bolder choices and that has translated into me being less scared to take risks in real life too. It’s one of the best things I’ve done for myself.’

For information on tickets and courses at The Free Association, visit

By Luisa Metcalfe 

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