Many self-help books and blogs promote the idea of maintaining a journal. But is there any research to support their recommendation? In this article, we will highlight research that has conducted rigorous control studies to show that journal writing is beneficial for you.
In their research paper titled Letters of gratitude: Improving well-being through expressive writing in the Journal of Writing Research, Steven Toepfer and Kathleen Walker show that expressing gratefulness through written letters improved the well-being, happiness, and life-satisfaction of individuals as compared to controls who did not write. Earlier research had shown that intentional activity has about 40% impact on a person's happiness, while the rest is out of their own control with 50% being accounted to genetics and 10% to circumstances. Naturally, if you wish to improve your well-being, you need to focus on that 40%, and expressing gratitude in your daily journal can be a great way to do just that. Moreover, studies have shown that grateful people sleep better, have higher self-esteem, improved mental strength, reduced aggression, better relationships, and better physical and mental health.
In 1986, Pennebaker and Beall found that expressively writing about past traumatic experiences significantly increases physiological arousal in the short-term. It also reduces long-term health issues. In 2005, Baikie and Wilhelm further confirmed that writing expressively about traumatic, stressful or emotional events for just 15-20 minutes on 3-5 occassions leads to significantly better physical and physiological results compared to writing about neutral events. The key is to not worry about spelling, grammar, or sentence structure. Focus on your deepest thoughts, and continue writing till the time is up. Write about your relationships; your past, present, or future; or who you have been and where you would like to be. Such journaling results in lower stress, improved immunity, reduced blood pressure, improved lung and liver function, improved mood, improved working memory, improved sporting performance, higher grades, and improved social and language skills. Limited benefits were found even in victims of natural disaster, psychiatric prison inmates, and those with recent breakups. Not everyone might benefit from such writing though. Recollection of events, for writing expressively, lead to detrimental effects in survivors of childhood abuse.
Such expressive writing is also likely to prevent rumination — the constant mulling about one's negative experiences. Rumination is known to be detrimental to happiness and well-being.
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