Writing for Wellbeing
With Dr Megan Hayes, author of Write Yourself Happy.
A great deal of scientific research into what is called expressive writing, pioneered by Prof James Pennebaker at the University of Texas, which has shown us that writing about challenging experiences – from job loss to heartbreak to living with cancer – can have remarkable effects on both our emotional and physical health. This fascinating research has shown us the profound ways that writing can heal – but what if there were much more to writing than helping us to heal when things go wrong? Can we also pen our greatest hopes, our joys and our interests – and make constructive change beyond simply coping? Might writing help us, not only to survive in the tough times, but also to thrive in the good?
There have been a few studies in recent years on more positive ways of writing. Some have combined expressive writing with the recent trend toward mindfulness, suggesting that those who are more mindful might benefit more from writing. Others have encouraged writing about “intensely positive experiences”. Another positive version of expressive writing is called “benefit- finding” – encouraging the writer to reframe a trauma in optimistic terms by focusing on the positive outcomes of troubling experiences, such as illness. Interestingly, this can be just as effective as typical expressive writing.
These more positive forms of expressive writing show us that the practice of writing is infinitely adaptable. They also show us that, even if we are experiencing challenges, going headfirst at them in our writing may not always be the most comforting or helpful approach. We might want to write, instead, with hope for better times ahead. Or we might focus on finding some serenity, accepting that every life involves suffering. This idea is at the heart of what I call positive journalling: we can take advantage of research in positive psychology in our writing, but still feel the freedom to express ourselves, and whatever we are going through, openly on the page.
Writing Our Positive Emotions
Positive journalling can help us to combine all of the research we have looked at so far – including mindfulness and benefit-finding – but it also goes a step beyond this, to create a more holistic, everyday writing practice. At the centre of any positive journalling practice are some vital building blocks: our positive emotions.
Expressing our emotions is integral to writing for wellbeing. The results of the very earliest expressive writing study in the 1980s showed that writing the facts of a trauma alone did not offer the greatest benefits for participants. Those who wrote about the trauma and the emotions they felt in relation to it were the ones to experience the most profound results.
What about our positive emotions – are they really that important? Well, psychologists tell us that, when we feel positive, we are kinder and tend to get along with each other a lot better. Feeling positive can help us to connect with others, often because it softens our defences and biases. More than this, regular feelings of positive emotion have been shown to promote our resilience. Positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina has suggested that feeling positive emotions, in comparison with negative ones, helps to broaden our minds to encompass a wider range of thoughts and potential actions. This expansive feature of positivity spurs what Fredrickson calls an upward spiral, where we are prompted to build practical, social and psychological resources. This is known as Fredrickson’s broaden- and-build theory of positive emotions. Positivity, apparently, is a veritable multivitamin for our wellbeing.
The Positive Journal Approach
How might all this be applied to our journal writing? For starters, some psychologists have shown that when writers use positive emotion words such as happiness, enthusiasm or amusement in what they write, the benefits of the writing appear to be greater. Clearly, then, writing in a way that might encourage greater positivity – and genuine expression of this positivity – seems like a good practice to get into. Rather than focusing on our challenges alone, writing with our positive emotions might have a whole host of benefits over and above those of typical expressive writing, which focuses on our challenges.
This is exactly why my Positive Journalling Study came about. It was designed to offer the “lens” of positive emotions in writing – to highlight these emotions – yet without limiting what participants could write about. This is because, from the existing science, what seems most important about writing is the way we write, not the content.
Expressing ourselves honestly and fluidly is much more vital in writing ourselves happier than fixating only on a certain happy topic. Why not give this a go today? Check out Megan’s website for a free bundle of positive emotion worksheets and give positive journalling a try.
This article is extracted from Dr Megan’s book Write Yourself Happy: The Art of Positive Journalling.
Listen to an interview with Prof James Pennebaker with Dr Michael Mosley on BBC Radio 4’s Just One Thing.