Six Surprising Rewards of Journaling

by PAMELA KEMP

We’ve been writing for 5,000 years. But modern scientists have only begun to uncover the impact of writing and drawing on the brain and body. Whether you prefer a fine blue pen, a fistful of neon markers or an on-screen keyboard, journaling pays more dividends than Apple stock. Here are six surprising rewards of journaling.

#1. Improves Mental Health

The idea of writing as a therapeutic tool first took hold in 1988 when social psychologist James Pennebaker launched a landmark study. That first experiment involved 50 college students divided into two groups. The first group was directed to write about a traumatic experience for four days in a row. The second group was assigned to write on the same schedule, but told to write about an ordinary experience. When the students were assessed weeks later, those who wrote about trauma reported better moods and fewer trips to the student health center than those who wrote about nothing of consequence.

Many more studies have corroborated and expanded on the positive effects of "expressive writing therapy." Writing about a difficult or painful experience helps to make sense of it. By breaking down a traumatic experience into words and acknowledging its harm, the trauma is downsized.

Julia Cameron, writer and teacher renowned for her work on creativity, advocates a daily regimen of stream of consciousness writing that she calls "Morning Pages." Explaining the concept, Cameron says "It is as though by setting our inner movie onto the page, we are freed up to act in our lives. Suddenly, a day is filled with small choice points, tiny windows of time available for our conscious use." Not a bad return in exchange for a few pages of words.

In this way a journal functions somewhat like cognitive therapy. Some psychologists even incorporate journal writing into their practice. Whether journaling is part of prescribed treatment, a DIY preventive regimen or mental health tune up, the evidence is overwhelming: Writing works like vitamins for mental health. As author Natalie Goldberg observes, "Whether you're keeping a journal or writing as a meditation, it's the same thing. What's important is you're having a relationship with your mind."

The research on the benefits of drawing reveals a similar but slightly different effect. In one experiment a group of college students were guided to focus on the sensory impact of a traumatic event. Half the students were then asked to draw their emotional reaction to the event. The other half were told to draw something for enjoyment. The students who drew for enjoyment fared better in terms of mood. Researchers concluded that drawing works best as a distraction, as opposed to a means for processing an event.

Future research will likely reveal more nuances but the value of writing and drawing is undisputed.


#2. Helps You Excel at Work

It may seem counterintuitive to steal time away from a day bulging with meetings and deadlines to write in a journal, but many management professionals believe that journaling is a vital to success.

How does journaling impact work? Keeping a journal promotes reflection, and over time reveals patterns, recurring issues, and sometimes important questions. In other words, journaling encourages a different kind of analysis than is possible during a typical high-pressure day. Even with a fairly modest investment of time, journaling helps a person become a more grounded thinker.

Of course, this phenomenon is not the exclusive province of management. A 1994 study showed that participants writing about the impact of being laid off were more likely to find new jobs than those who either did not write, or wrote about daily plans and job search activities. Journaling offers an antidote for stress and anxiety, resulting in better decision-making, increased motivation and confidence. Cleary a habit of writing about the things that matter most is a formula for success in the workplace.


#3. Unleashes Creative Spirits

There are pros and cons to keeping digital vs paper journals. In the end though, it's how you fill the blank pages that matters more than the mechanics. Some people keep different journals for different purposes: one for yoga, for travel, for sketching, for cooking and food ideas, and maybe even an extra one just in case.

The fact is, creative sparks fly when you least expect it — in the shower, on the road, or waiting in line at the store. The only requirement is that regardless of format, a journal must be able to accommodate the glimmers of fascination that sail in your direction: quotes, photographs, sketches, doodles and lists, single words, lyrics, poems, or expressions overheard on the street. The idea is to commit fleeting moments and thoughts to paper, accessible for perusing, musing and recycling on demand.

Imagine journals in the hands of Vincent Van Gogh, Maya Angelou or Ernest Hemingway. Just thinking about the flow of raw ideas from any one of these great minds inspires awe. But no doubt each of these extraordinary creatives observed the fundamental rule of journaling: write for no one but yourself.

Journaling isn’t a competition and there is no audience. There's no restriction, and there's no grammar or spelling police to check your work. Tell the inner critic in your head to go for a walk, and let the writing flow. It might not make sense today or tomorrow. And maybe not even in a month. But eventually you'll see a pattern, a connection or a concept for the first time. Remember, there's no specific goal or metric to be met with a journal. Just follow your instincts and revel in what you find along the way. It’s that simple.


#4. Promotes Healing & Physical Health

Is it possible that journaling could improve the body's ability to heal? Astoundingly enough, Pennebaker and many other researchers have demonstrated that writing about emotional trauma can actually improve immune system function.

In a 1999 study, patients with asthma and arthritis were divided into groups that either wrote about the most stressful event in their lives or a mundane topic. Months later, the asthma patients who wrote about a stressful event exhibited improved breathing and the patients with arthritis had less severe symptoms. In contrast, the group that wrote about a topic lacking emotional weight did not exhibit these same benefits.

A more recent study in New Zealand involved 122 people between 18 and 55 who had biopsies. Half the group wrote before the biopsy, the other half wrote after . Both groups were then divided again: into a control group who wrote about daily activities, and a focus group who wrote about thoughts and feelings of a traumatic experience. Each participant had a punch biopsy on the inner upper arm.

Ten days after the biopsy, 52% of the participants in the focus group writing before the biopsy were healed, compared with 27% of those who wrote afterwards. In contrast, among the control group who wrote about daily activities, only 15% of those writing before the biopsy were healed, compared with 23% of those who wrote after the procedure. The research suggests that the timing of writing, in addition to the emotional content, impacts the healing process.

Studies consistently reveal that writing about traumatic events has a profound positive effect on physical health. While it seems unlikely physicians will begin prescribing journaling for patients, anyone can seize the opportunity to open a journal and take the plunge.


#5. Creates Your Best Life

The right words can mend a rift, reveal an essential truth or spark a romance. Finding the courage to speak isn’t always easy, but a journal is a safe haven where that extra dose of moxie and confidence can take root and bloom.

And consider what may be the quintessential journal habit: putting onto paper anything and everything that inspires us to be grateful. It’s as if by marking the moments that add joy to a day, we amplify the pleasure and add a certain luster to our worldview. An abundance of gratitude doesn’t require extraordinary luck, but a keen eye. A wink from your favorite barista as you inhale the scent of freshly ground coffee. The sight of three little girls arm in arm, collapsing in giggles as they make their way down the street. A phone call bringing the right news about a medical test. Capture it on paper and claim your prize.

Weddings, graduations, reunions and birthdays produce a stream of photos and mementos. But many equally extraordinary moments escape into the ether, simply because they they pop up without invitation. Realizing she could never remember all the touching and hilarious moments she enjoyed with her grandchildren, one woman began making notes. She bought each child a journal, and once a year fills them with the collected notes of moments large and small.

Think about the powerful message a child gets reading about herself, as seen through a loving grandmother's eyes. Fast forward through the decades and imagine how that child's grandchildren will someday be able to read about her as a child. A simple idea, like this family time capsule, speaks across generations.

Even journals never intended for anyone else’s eyes often have a snippet or two that begs to be shared. Remember that weekend you spent with a college friend, tearing around town on the hunt for the best tiramisu? Your description of that 5000 calorie adventure, scribbled on a birthday card decades later becomes pure gold.


#6. Enhances Memory

Everyone could use a better data plan than what the human brain offers. Middle age and senior citizen status may amp up memory loss, but there probably aren't too many people who would pass on a few extra bytes of personal memory at any age. We can't download brain matter selectively, but we can use journaling to lighten our cognitive load. Writing about a painful event, for example, can offload issues and optimize brain processing. This can often result in better sleep and clearer thinking.

Writing also preserves the most exquisite evidence. Salman Rushdie said it best, telling us to "never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things — childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves — that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers."


Every time a blank journal begins to comes alive with words , sketches, color and imagination, at least one life changes. We can be revitalized, motivated and find new clarity, while boosting our mood, memory and immunity. It’s a guaranteed game-changer, all in exchange for a few minutes every day. It’s the best deal in the galaxy, open to all.

 


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