If you keep a diary or journal, you are not alone. In fact, in a recent study, 83 percent of girls ages 16-19 are reported to be keeping a diary, and most of them say they keep their highly personal reflections offline. How prevalent is keeping a journal or diary? Google Scholar had over 36,000 entries in 2013 alone on the topic.
You also are in good company.
Presidents George Washington, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Harry S. Truman, and writers Lewis Carroll and Virginia Woolf all kept a diary. Then, of course, there are famous ones. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is written about her life in hiding from the Nazis from June 12, 1942 to August 1, 1944 during World War II. The diary was a gift given to her on her 13th birthday, the day she first began writing in it, and is considered to be one of the top books of the 20th century.
Evidence suggests that keeping a journal — which includes your thoughts about events in your life and how you feel about those events — can help you cope with the past. It also can help you reach your goals for the future. This is called expressive writing.
James Pennebaker is one of the best-known researchers on this topic. He has found that integration is central to the process of writing about negative life events and offers research to show how writing about traumatic events can improve the immune system. In his 2004 book, Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval he shows how this writing can improve not only the immune system, but also grades and lives. He believes this happens because writing about trauma changes the memory and alters the way it is organized and remembered.
But keeping a journal or diary isn’t only about your negative thoughts and feelings. Researchers have shown that people feel happier when writing about what it would be like to achieve future dreams and goals. Chad Burton and Laura King studied intensely positive experiences (IPE) when compared to control (trivial) topics and found participants writing about IPEs showed improved mood and fewer medical visits.
So which is better? Writing about positive or negative feelings?
As it turns out, the studies are mixed, but experimenting with the process is worth a try. The great news about keeping a journal that it’s free, almost always immediately available, and it can be done anytime, anywhere. So here is a way to get your journal started. You can use a computer, write in a book, or use one of the many smartphone applications made just for journaling. All options work great.
Think of the journal as a friend you can talk to about anything. Since the studies are mixed, think of this as an experiment and a way for you to find out what type of journaling works best. If it isn’t working for you for any reason, don’t continue. But the idea is to find out what style of expressive writing works best for you.
To begin with, let’s use a technique used by the researchers. The first one is about dealing with negative feelings. The second one is about reaching goals and dreams. Scientists have found some impressive results when they asked people to write about themselves for 20 minutes a day for four days in a row. It may sound like a long time, but you might be amazed by the impact. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, or editing — just write. You don’t need to show this to anyone.
For the first day, write about something personal that has been bothering you, or something from the past that has been difficult for you deal with. It is common for people to struggle with writing the first day or two, but it gets easier, and even more helpful over time. Over the next three days, find 20 minutes each day to do this type of writing again. See how it feels.
The second exercise in journaling is about capturing your hopes, dreams and goals on paper. This exercise helps to make us think more positively abut the future. It makes us more optimistic, and you remember how important that is. Pick some time in the future. Maybe three or six months — a year, or maybe five years, and imagine your best possible future self. Think about accomplishing something that you have been wanting and working toward. In other words, think about reaching a goal that is really possible for you if everything happened the way you want it to happen. Put as many details into the description as you can. This helps make these goals real possibilities. Again, write for 20 minutes on these goals for four days.
Definitely keep these ideas private and secure. You want to be honest in your thoughts; people finding it likely isn’t a great thing. You can go back at any time to remember these times — or you can never go back again, it’s up to you. The power is in the writing, not in the reviewing.
In eight days you will have a sample of these different styles. If one has worked better than the other, then use that. If they are different, use the style that has helped the most. I’ve found that both can be helpful, it just depends on my mood.