The Research Is In: Writing Makes You Happier (Even if You’re Pretty Bad at It)
When you attempt to envision a writer, I imagine many of you see a quirky recluse, hunched over a desk in some cabin, crumpled paper strewn about as he or she obsessively works on the next great American novel.
But writing is so much more. Prose is thought put to page, which makes all of us writers—even if we don’t have the chops to tangle with Faulkner. In most cases, writing is most useful as a tool for thinking, expression, and creativity; cabin-dwelling novelists be damned.
Let’s look at some of the benefits of making it a regular habit.
Writing and Happiness
Much of the research on writing and happiness deals with “expressive writing,” or jotting down what you think and how you feel. Even blogging “undoubtedly affords similar benefits” to private expressive writing in terms of therapeutic value.
Expressive writing has also been linked to improved mood, well-being, and reduced stress levels for those who do it regularly, says Adam Grant:
“Research by Laura King shows that writing about achieving future goals and dreams can make people happier and healthier...And Jane Dutton and I found that when people doing stressful fundraising jobs kept a journal for a few days about how their work made a difference, they increased their hourly effort by 29% over the next two weeks.”
Writing and Communicating Clearly
Laziness with words creates difficulty in describing feelings, sharing experiences, and communicating with others. Being able to flesh out thoughts in your mind only to have them come stumbling out when you speak is supremely frustrating. Fortunately, regular writing seems to offer some reprieve.
In both emotional intelligence and in hard sciences like mathematics, writing has been shown to help people communicate highly complex ideas more effectively. The practice helps eliminate “it sounded good in my head” by forcing your hand—brains forgive fuzzy abstractions, prose does not.
Writing and Handling Hard Times
In one study that followed recently fired engineers, the researchers found that those engineers who consistently engaged with expressive writing were able to find another job faster. Says Adam Grant:
“The engineers who wrote down their thoughts and feelings about losing their jobs reported feeling less anger and hostility toward their former employer. They also reported drinking less. Eight months later, less than 19% of the engineers in the control groups were re-employed full-time, compared with more than 52% of the engineers in the expressive writing group.”
According to an older study, writing about traumatic events actually made the participants more depressed, until about six months later, when the emotional benefits started to stick.
One participant noted, “Although I have not talked with anyone about what I wrote, I was finally able to deal with it [and] work through the pain instead of trying to block it out. Now it doesn’t hurt to think about it.”
It seems that timing is critical for expressive writing to have an impact. Forcing the process to happen may only worsen things, but if it’s an activity that is engaged in naturally, the benefits seem clear.
Writing and Gratitude
As the authors of one study noted, subjects who reflected on the good things in their life once a week by writing them down were more positive and motivated about their current situations and their futures.
The catch was, when they wrote about them every day, the benefits were minimal. This makes sense; any activity can feel disingenuous and just plain boring if done too often. It seems like the key is to reflect and write about gratitude regularly, but not begrudgingly often.
Writing and Your “Mental Tabs”
Have you ever had too many internet tabs open at once? It’s a madhouse of distraction. When I feel like my brain has too many tabs open at once, it’s often the result of trying to mentally juggle too many thoughts at the same time.
Writing gives form to your ideas and gets them out of your head, freeing up bandwidth and preventing you from crashing your browser like a late night downward spiral on Wikipedia.
Getting important ideas down alleviates the stress of losing your thoughts to time or an overcrowded mind.
I’ve personally never felt inclined to not work on something just because I “archived” the idea with some notes or an outline—in fact, I’m more likely to continue developing that idea since it has already been started.
If all else fails, remember this joke from Mitch Hedberg: “I sit at my hotel at night, I think of something that’s funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or, if the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.”
Writing and Learning
Information often sticks better when it’s learned as though it needs to be taught or re-written in your own words. This concept of having a “writer’s ear” never fully clicked with me until I started writing regularly.
There’s a certain discipline required to create interesting written work that demands the individual be receptive and focused on finding new sources of information, inspiration, and insight. I’ve read books, listened to podcasts and the radio, and watched videos I would normally have put off in order to learn something new so that I might write about it later.
Simply being a curator of good ideas encourages deeper thinking, research, and “heading down the rabbit hole” in order to find unique takes on topics that matter to you. Committing to creating a volume of work also allows you to tackle big ideas more effectively.
Writing around a certain topic for some time will allow you to build off of older thoughts, utilizing what you’ve already written to develop ideas on a grander scale—I’m sure many writers have written a paragraph that lead to an essay, which lead to a series of articles, which lead to a book.
Writing as Leadership at Scale
Though the world may now be drowning under the personal brand deluge, there are sincerely interesting opportunities that an “anyone can publish” world brings about.
The ability to leave an impact at scale through your words alone is an astounding concept. There’s a bit of a creative shock the first time someone emails you, thanking you for the work you’ve put out, and sharing how it has helped or influenced him.
Without a doubt, the positive feedback for this “leadership at scale” leads to gratitude and further motivation for the writer.
Even in the face of criticism, writers learn to build thick skins like few others. Criticism, even unwarranted, is the breakfast of champions.
This article was originally published on Help Scout. It has been republished here with permission.
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