Maintaining Practicing

The Many Benefits of Journaling


Would you sacrifice seven years of your life for the sake of a stranger? Well, if projections are to be believed, that is the amount of time the average person will sacrifice over a lifetime to social media. As of 2019, we spend two hours and 22 minutes a day acknowledging the most precious moments of other peoples’ lives, offering words of praise and encouragement to validate friends and strangers alike. We probably know what our favorite celebrity is thankful for more than we know what we ourselves are thankful for.

Perhaps not surprisingly, all of this outward engagement leaves us feeling increasingly inadequate, lonely, and anxious. Luckily the inverse is true. Turning that curiosity and engagement inward toward our own lives and interior worlds yields equally powerful, and positive, results. One of the best, and easiest ways to do this is to journal– that is, to record our thoughts and feelings, our life events and memories, our feelings of gratitude, for no one but ourselves. In other words, the antithesis of Instagram. And the antidote.

According to a study by the University of Rochester, journaling helps to identify stressors, prioritize the things that bother us, and recognize negative thoughts and self-talk. As a result, journalers experience a reduction in stress, and an ability to manage anxiety and depression.

More specific types of journaling have specific results of their own. Gratitude journaling, for example, is taking stock of all of the things for which you are thankful, which could include anything from the support you receive from your spouse to finding an ideal parking spot when you arrived at work. In one study, a group of adolescents who kept gratitude journals became significantly less materialistic and went on to donate 60% more of their earnings to charity than those who did not keep the journal. The American Heart Association even found that gratitude journaling, when practiced by patients suffering from heart failure experienced “better mood, better sleep, less fatigue, and lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac health.”

You can’t lie to your gratitude journal, though. Sam Khazai, a New York-based actor, told NPR that when he’s been too down to feel any gratitude and resorted to make things up that he was grateful for, or to list future things he anticipated he would be grateful for, the effect was in the reverse and he took an emotional hit.

Expressive writing is, according to the Wall Street Journal, a more particular and intensive form of journaling in which one “write(s) about a traumatic or difficult situation…recording their deepest thoughts and feelings…in short sessions-15-20 minutes.” An early study was conducted by Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a leader in the study of expressive writing, at the University of Texas, compared students who wrote about traumatic experiences versus those who wrote about trivial experiences for 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days. Those who wrote about traumatic experiences visited the student health center, as well as used pain relievers, less frequently. Expressive writing has been found to be helpful even for older traumatic events, in fact, writing too soon about a traumatic experience may do more harm than good.

Whatever type of journaling you choose to do, you have several formats from which to choose. Some choose to commit their thoughts to a word processor or into a voice recorder. Another option is to download one of several journaling apps such as Day One and Universum which offer such features as step trackers and interfaces that can be personalized to be as clean or as busy as the owner wants. With their calendars and automatic alerts, they make it easy for writers to commit to a daily practice, which is essential to optimizing the effects of journaling. Apps like Momento “…automatically collect(s) and intelligently organiz(es) your activity on social networks and apps.” Arguably, such a busy interface can create the same kind of harried stress that journaling is designed to provide respite from.

Moreover, the old-fashioned practice of putting pen to paper has benefits of its own. Studies have shown that writing by hand improves memory and retention because “…it involves more senses and motor neurons than when typing on a keyboard.”

Lifestyle magazines publish workbooks of sorts for those having trouble deciding what to write about. Bella Grace, for example, offers, their “Field Guide to Everyday Magic: 100 Thought-Provoking Prompts.” It provides self-exploratory questions such as, “You’re in charge of starting the ultimate “feel-good” TV channel. What movies and shows do you air?” and “What’s your idea of a perfect summer day?” and assignments like “Write an overdue love letter to yourself” and “List things you would do if you had an extra hour in the day.” Interspersed are gentle, soothing idyllic stock images that rival those regularly checkered throughout Instagram, but with plenty of blank space for you to fill with the richness of your own world. Otherwise, a Google search will yield thousands of free prompts to get the ball rolling, such as, “The two moments I’ll never forget in my life are…,” “I couldn’t imagine living without…,” and “What would you do if you loved yourself unconditionally?”

Clearly, we have the time. Why not invest it in ourselves?

-Marybeth Connaughton

Photo: Cathryn Lavery cathrynlavery via Wikimedia Commons

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