You’ve probably heard that keeping a journal is good for your mental health, but did you know that writing can benefit your physical health as well? In fact, psychologists studying the effects of writing have found that people who write about an important event from their lives have better well-being over the long term and may even be less likely to get sick.
Contrary to what you might think, gaining these benefits doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, if you’re looking for ideas of what to write about, psychologists have found several short and easy writing activities that boost well-being—some of which can take as little as two minutes a day. Read on to learn about how writing can benefit health and well-being, as well as three topics to try if you’re looking for some inspiration.
How does writing benefit us? The psychologist James Pennebaker was one of the first researchers to look at the effects of writing. In his studies, participants write for 15-30 minutes daily over the course of about 3-5 days. Some participants write about neutral topics, while other participants are asked to write about an important emotional issue in their life. These studies have found that the participants who wrote about emotional experiences (compared to participants who wrote about mundane topics) experienced better health in the months following the writing activity: they visited the doctor less than the other participants and they also experienced beneficial changes to their immune system. And while (not too surprisingly) participants found writing about emotions to be stressful on the day that they were writing, they actually experienced better well-being in the long run. Pennebaker also found that participants who wrote about their emotions appeared to do better at work and school afterwards: students had improved grades, and people who had been laid off from work found new jobs more quickly.
Why does writing have these beneficial effects? One possibility is that writing helps people to work through an emotional experience and develop insight about it. In fact, when researchers count the different types of words that participants use in their writing, the greatest benefits of writing occurred for participants who used more words related to insight (words like “consider” and “discover”) as their writing went on. The take-home message? It seems like putting our ideas into words may be beneficial for us when it helps us gain insight into our emotions and ourselves.
However, if you’re interested in trying out the benefits of writing for yourself, psychologists have found that you don’t need to write about difficult or negative events—in fact, writing about positive topics can have just as much of an effect as writing about difficult events. Read on to learn more about easy writing tasks you can try:
3 easy writing tasks to try:
- Imagine yourself in the future. The psychologist Laura King has asked research participants to write about their goals for the future and what their life would look like if everything went as they hoped (what researchers called their “best possible self”). Participants who wrote about themselves in the future experienced more positive emotions immediately after the task and reported higher well-being even several weeks later. Participants who did this task (compared to those who wrote about a neutral topic) were also less likely to visit the health center for an illness over next 5 months. Why does writing about your “best possible self” have these effects? Laura King has suggested that it works because it allows people to become more aware of their goals and to gain a better understanding of themselves. Want to try this out for yourself? Spend a few minutes focusing on what your life would be like if everything goes as you hope and you’ve achieved your goals. As participants are told in this study, “Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could…. Now, write about what you imagined.”
- Write about something good. In one study, participants were asked to write about something positive from their lives. Half of participants were asked to write about a neutral topic, while half were told, “Think of the most wonderful experience or experiences in your life, happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music, or suddenly ‘being hit’ by a book or painting or from some great creative moment.” Participants were asked to choose one of these positive experiences, imagine re-experiencing it, and then to write about it in detail. The researchers found that participants who wrote about something good reported higher levels of positive emotion immediately after writing and were less likely to visit the health center for an illness over the next few months. Why did this work? The researchers think that it may have helped participants to clarify their “life story” and gain greater self-awareness. So if you want to try this out for yourself, pick a great memory and write about it. And the good news is that this doesn’t have to be a long activity: in fact, even when participants wrote for as little as two minutes, they experienced benefits from writing about something good.
- Write a letter. In one study, the researcher Martin Seligman and his colleagues asked participants to give a letter to someone they were grateful to. Participants were asked to pick someone they felt they hadn’t fully thanked before and then to deliver their letter to the person. Compared to participants who completed a neutral topic, the participants who thanked someone experienced increased happiness and lower symptoms of depression, and these effects persisted one month afterwards. Other research has found that gratitude can help us to improve our relationships. Want to try this out for yourself? Pick someone you feel you owe a thank-you, and write a letter to them. Research has found that expressing gratitude is especially effective when we show that we understand and care about the person we are thanking. Although it sounds so simple (and you may wonder, “Doesn’t this person already know I’m grateful?”), research has found that taking the time to put our appreciation into words can improve both our own well-being and our relationships with others.
Writing has numerous benefits, such as improving well-being, improving physical health, and helping us to better understand ourselves and the world around us. Although starting a new writing project can sometimes feel like a daunting task, researchers have found that even setting aside just a few minutes to jot down your thoughts can have benefits. In particular, three tasks are especially likely to help improve our well-being, health, and relationships: writing about our goals for the future, writing about our most positive memories, and writing a letter expressing appreciation to someone.
About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health. Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.