Journaling is one of those habits that can seem whimsical at best, self-involved at worst. After all, "just" writing about your life can't actually change anything, can it?
It turns out, it can. Dramatically.
Journaling (or maintaining a diary) is a well-established tradition. For thousands of years, humans have sworn by putting pen to paper. They've faithfully recorded their lives and how they feel about them, leaving us important historical documents, not to mention fascinating personal stories.
Now, modern science is starting to back up the health benefits of the ancient exercise.
Over the past decade or so, researchers have identified the concrete benefits of regular journaling, or "expressive writing," which is journaling specifically on something upsetting/traumatic, such as a job loss, sickness of a loved one, or conflict with a significant other.
Apparently, such journaling leads to significant improvements in both mental and physical health, including:
- Reduced blood pressure
- Improved lung function
- Improved liver function
- Improved symptoms of asthma, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and rheumatoid arthritis
- Improved immune system functioning (increased number of T-cells)
- Improved working memory
It even promotes faster wound healing. A 2013 study out of New Zealand showed that adults who journaled on upsetting events for 20 minutes a day for three consecutive days healed over 75% faster than their non-journaling counterparts.
Still more research indicates that expressive writing results in reduced absenteeism from work, quicker re-employment after job loss, and higher GPAs for students.
Think about that for a moment: people who journaled for as little as 20 minutes a day healed from wounds faster, improved their GPAs, and boosted their immune systems, all with no side effects. If there was a pill for all that, it would fly off the shelves.
Why does journaling have such a tremendous health effect? No one is exactly sure, but it appears to have something to do with metabolizing stress.
Psychologist and expressive writing researcher Pennebaker says, "Writing about an emotionally charged subject or an unresolved trauma helps you put the event into perspective and give some structure and organization to those anxious feelings, which ultimately helps you get through it ... [T]his can help people sleep better, feel and think better, and have richer social lives, all of which can bolster immune function and improve health."
Convinced? Here are a few things to keep in mind if you do take up journaling this year:
1. Do it by hand
Writing by hand stimulates the part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System (RAS), and science shows that using the RAS regularly helps you increase your ability to focus. Writing by hand also uses motor skills and tests your memory in a way typing simply doesn't -- it helps keep your mind sharp.
2. Keep it private and don't edit
Write quickly and without "thinking" too much -- the point is to your thoughts and feelings out with no judgment. Don't share it, and don't worry about spelling or syntax. This is about self-expression, not grammatical perfection.
3. Get a journal you really like
You'll be spending time with this item, so get one you love. Find an inspiring image or quote that uplifts you every time you see it. Options abound at bookstores as well as on Amazon.
Pro tip: Get a lined, spiral-bound one, so you don't have to deal with the awkwardness of bending the spine back to get from page to page.
4. Write daily for 15-20 minutes
Like meditating, you'll get the most benefits from journaling by doing it consistently and for long enough. I personally like journaling in the mornings, since it helps me start the day grounded. Some people prefer evening journaling, since they can record what happened during the day. Find what works for you and stick with it.
If you do choose to take the plunge, know that simply the act of journaling is making you stronger and boosting your vitality. You are taking action to elevate your physical, emotional, and possibly even spiritual health ... which will lead to a very happy new year indeed.
"I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train." - Oscar Wilde