The Psychological Benefits of Writing Regularly

July 17, 2016

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 they obsessively work 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 writing a regular habit.

The Therapeutic Aspects of Writing

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.”

Moreover, 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. Writing helps eliminate “it sounded good in my head” by forcing your hand; brains forgive fuzzy abstractions, prose does not.

Writing Can Help You Handle 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 reemployed 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 6 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, 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 writing is 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 Helps You Manage Your “Mental Tabs”

Have you ever had too many Internet tabs open at once? It is 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.

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.”

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