Editor’s Note: David G. Allan is the editorial director for CNN Travel, Style, Science and Wellness. This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project, to which you can subscribe here.
You are living in an extraordinary time. So much is happening in the world, in your country, in your life. Making sense of it, processing, coping and even harnessing it to your benefit is important work. And writing in a personal journal is one of the most enjoyable, creative, simple and productive ways to accomplish those things.
Before we delve into the wellness benefits and creative options for your new or renewed journaling, here are my own bona fides: Encouraged by a middle school reading teacher (thank you, Ms. Gearhart, wherever you are), I started a journal in 1986 that I’ve kept up with ever since.
It’s the most consistent, contiguous activity of my life besides eating, reading and watching television and movies. It’s the closest I get to Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 practice hours toward skill mastery, as explained in his book “Outliers.” By my interpretation of Gladwell’s formula, I’m a journaling expert.
Why you should write in a journal now
“Now” is usually the best time to start anything. The sooner you begin, the sooner you’ll benefit. As for journaling, it takes little initial preparation and effort to get started. You’re reading this article and already thinking about writing, so let’s do it!
Also, consider the historical context of starting or restarting now. We are in the middle of a global pandemic with massive economic, political, cultural and personal implications. To journal now is to record history, as witnessed through your own lens. And that’s exactly the kind of documentation that helps individuals and society make sense of events.
“Only if we succeed in bringing this simple, daily material together,” as the late Dutch Minister of Education Gerrit Bolkestein said, explaining the need to preserve diaries and letters during World War II, “only then will the scene of this struggle for freedom be painted in full depth and shine.”
A journal or diary is also your personal history. You may not be eager to revisit this strange and challenging chapter anytime soon, but at some point in the future, your current thoughts, activities, worries and other such details will become fascinating. Journaling is a great memory aide. “The palest ink is clearer than the fondest memory,” goes the Chinese proverb.
It’s never too late either. Start now and record reflections of the last eight months while they’re still fresh and unfolding.
While research specifically on long-term journaling or keeping a diary is lacking, there are mental, physical and practical benefits to writing about what upsets us and what makes us happy, according to studies and experts (other than myself).
Therapy is beneficial to everyone, no matter what you’re coping with or working through. Whether you’re getting professional help or not, writing about it is also a highly effective — and extremely cost-effective — mental health tool.
I can’t think of a more fitting start to this story than to point out it’s the same one I wrote last year, with some dates changed to reflect two years into the pandemic instead of one.
James Pennebaker, a psychologist, researcher and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied the benefits of personal, reflective writing for decades. In his numerous studies on “expressive writing” – focused on writing about an upsetting or traumatic event – he has found it to be a “free, simple and efficient system to work through issues that are keeping you awake at night,” he explained to me.
“Expressive writing works for a number of reasons,” Pennebaker said. First, just acknowledging an upsetting event has value. “And writing about it also helps the person find meaning or understand it.” If you don’t find meaning, he said, “you may be constantly thinking about it.”
OK, but what else do I get?
“Once you work through it and are not thinking about it, you sleep better,” Pennebaker said, and sleep has many health benefits. “Social relationships improve” as well, he added, probably because you can more easily focus on others and their issues.
In one study by Pennebaker, students who employed expressive writing about traumatic events had fewer colds and less fatigue. In another, those who recently lost their jobs and wrote out their feelings about it found new jobs more quickly than those who didn’t.
Expressive and reflective writing has been associated with a host of benefits, including better sleep, boosting one’s memory and improving marital happiness for some couples. Writing about a positive experience can increase life satisfaction, and personal writing has been shown to lower depression symptoms for some. No wonder the US Army’s new “Holistic Health and Fitness” training manual recommends journaling for its soldiers.
How the act of writing impacts your brain is still being unraveled, but cognitive scientists now know our brains can only process certain information by writing it down. Writing down thoughts is akin to someone with a disability using a ramp to more easily enter a building, explained Andy Clark, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Edinburgh, in a 2018 New Yorker article.
Having written in a journal for decades now I have found that it:
- Has become a positive and enjoyable habit/compulsion
- Serves as a release and a harmless way to vent
- Is calming and gives me a much-needed opportunity to be creative
- Helps me work out personal and professional problems and dilemmas
- Gives me a reliable record of facts and details I often use later for writing or other reference
- Captures moments that I think will give me joy later in life when I revisit them
- Is comforting to think of it as an archive of our family life, and my children’s lives, that they will have after I’m gone
“For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story,” wrote Atul Guwande in his book “Being Mortal.” “Unlike your experiencing self – which is absorbed in the moment – your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole.”
This couldn’t be easier. All you need is a pen and notebook or a computer, and some time.
Beyond that, there is no right way to write. Structure, frequency and subject matter is your choice and will evolve over time. Anything you write – from a free flow of ideas to a rigid template of topics – is valuable.
If that’s too much creative freedom, I do have some “expert” advice of my own that may spark ideas for you.
The first question is whether you want it to be diary-style, where you try to write every day. Traditional diaries record things that happened, and not necessarily how you feel about them. A journal is typically less frequent and more about the interior life, as impacted by events.
Frequency doesn’t really matter but setting a daily, weekly or monthly goal may help you get in a groove. I personally average about one or two entries a month – but they tend to be long, written over multiple days (and multiple pre-pandemic visits to favorite coffee shops). However frequent, you should date each entry.
Over the years my journaling has evolved. Every entry now ends with a famous or found quote that sums up some part of my current condition. I also have categories I repeat, including short summaries of books I’ve read, coffee shop reviews, New Year’s resolutions, annual totems, the likes and dislikes of my kids at certain stages, and plans for the future.
Pick the canvas that’s right for you
I prefer physical books to electronic entries, but that’s simply a personal choice. Both mediums carry a risk of accidently losing them. (I once left a journal on a plane; luckily the crew found it a couple of tense hours later.) And the health benefits described above don’t seem to be dependent on a medium, Pennebaker said. “There’s basically no difference,” he said, between writing on paper versus electronic. “All of it is the art of translating experience into words.”
But social media – even if that’s where you currently and regularly spill your emotions and record the details of your life – is riskier. It can be beneficial according to some new research, Pennebaker explained, but only if the feedback is positive. He said it’s like talking to a friend. The friend’s reaction and feedback can be good and helpful or negative and unhelpful. Journaling, on the other hand, is a private space where you can safely be open and honest in a way that may be risky in a public space like social media.
“In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person,” wrote Susan Sontag, “I create myself.”
I’m on my 34th book since I started journaling in eighth grade. I use the same black pen throughout a single volume (currently a Uniball Signo 207). I try to break up pages of text with sketches, lists, hand-drawn charts and the occasional poignant yet hilarious New Yorker cartoon. About 10 years ago, I started adding a diary calendar feature to record at least one thing that happened every day – the profound and the mundane – so that I captured both the forest and the trees that make up the map of my life.
Some people have journals that favor art and sketches over words. Then there are the trendy goal-focused bullet journals in which you record your personal history in a series of lists and charts. See what appeals to you and don’t be afraid to shift and evolve.
If you go the traditional physical books route, avoid the cheap spiral-bound notebooks I used when I started, and look for bound volumes that appeal to your aesthetics. They will look nicer on your bookshelf and have a longer shelf life.
Over time I’ve gravitated from lined pages to blank sketch books, typically hard cover. I now pick volumes based on durability, size, number of sheets, paper stock and the cover. My favorites are, in order: Shinola Large (7” x 9”, 192 pages, 90 gsm stock weight), Pentalic Illustrator’s (5” x 8”, 192 pages, 90 gsm) and Leuchturrm 1917 Medium (5.75” x 8.25”, 249 pages, 80 gsm). These are the sacred safe spaces where I do my “denken mit der hand” (“thinking by hand”), as the promotional copy of the Leuchturrm 1917 describes its use.
I like pockets in the back, bookmark ribbons and elastic bands, but those aren’t musts for me. Often, I know a good journal by holding it and flipping through, imagining myself writing in it.
And when I imagine writing in it, it’s usually in a coffee shop with a creamy cortado and a warm pastry. I also love writing on planes and trains, sitting in nature and early in the morning before anyone else wakes up. But just try to write wherever you can carve out time to yourself and your thoughts.
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Again, you make up the rules, if any, and break them when you want to. The important thing is to start — and to enjoy yourself. The structure will change as you do, but benefits will come right away.