Want Greater Happiness and Creativity? Try Journaling

Do you keep a journal? Or have you ever wanted to?

I’ve kept a journal since I was about 12 years old and have no intention of stopping now. Though when I get old, I plan to have a big bonfire and burn the whole lot before I die.

I love my journals – and they are just for me.

I’m not sure what prompted me to begin my first journal, but quickly, over time, it became my trusted confidant. This was the safe place where I could go to unload my feelings and impressions; where I could begin to make sense of them and arrive at a feeling of greater peace.

The first function of my journal was always therapeutic.

Over the years, I’ve discovered other benefits as well. I think my journal is the reason why my husband and close family and friends are often surprised at how clearly I remember the things we did in the past. The reason, of course, is because I wrote about many of those events, happy, sad and everything in between. 

I love remembering so much from my life. To me, being able to recall so many details adds to the feeling of having lived more fully.

Another benefit is that I’ve likely become a better writer from all this practice behind the scenes, as I’ve tried to describe the emotions, places and happenings of my life as accurately as possible.

Proven benefits of journaling

If you’ve always wanted to keep a journal, or get back into the practice of writing one, there are some compelling reasons for doing so.

Recently, I’ve stumbled across two books that unexpectedly championed journaling: one for emotional resilience and the another for creativity.

In Emotional Agility, psychologist Susan David, Ph.D., offers techniques for how we can openly face our most difficult feelings and stressors and then use them to ignite meaningful change in our lives. One way to do this, she writes, is through journaling.

Here, she cites the work of James Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, who spent 40 years investigating the links between writing and emotional processing, after he had personally used journaling to recover from a period of deep depression.

What Pennebaker found was that people who wrote about emotionally charged experiences – even for only 20 minutes a day for three days – showed significantly greater improvements in health and well-being when compared to people who only wrote about everyday events.

People who wrote about their most complex, difficult emotions, generally “were happier, less depressed and less anxious,” writes David. “In the months after the writing sessions, they had lower blood pressure, improved immune function, and fewer visits to the doctor. They also reported better relationships, improved memory, and more success at work.”

Hard to believe? You can read more from this excerpt of David’s book.

In The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, one of author Julia Cameron’s most well-known techniques for fostering greater creativity are her “morning pages.”

Completed first thing in the morning, these are three pages of “longhand, stream of consciousness writing.”

“They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind,” she writes on her website, “and they are for your eyes only.”

The purpose of these pages are to help you purge all the distracting thoughts you have floating around in your head that might otherwise get in the way of the creative work ahead of you in your day. What you write in your morning pages can be as banal as listing all the errands you’ve got on your to-do list, or as charged as the argument you had last night with your sister.

Personally I don't do morning pages every day -- instead I use them mainly for mornings when I seem to have a particularly busy mind. They do really help me to clear my head and then move on to the creative work I really want to do.

Curious to learn more about the morning pages? Check out Cameron’s video on her website. (My favorite part is when she describes the morning pages as taking a “Dustbuster” to the corners of your mind.)

Getting started (again) on your own journal

Most of us already know that journaling is good for us. It’s just that we run into these problems:

  • Lack of time
  • Uncertainty about what to write about
  • Guilt about inconsistency – and then giving up entirely.

I get it. These are completely normal roadblocks.

If you’re interested in beginning – or re-starting – a journaling practice, check out the tips below for getting around these obstacles.

Tips to Start a Journaling Practice

1) Get a journal that really suits you.

This is so personal. A few things to consider:

Format. Paper or digital? Think about what’s going to be most gratifying for you – having something physical to curl up with, or something potentially more practical on your phone or tablet that you can access on the cloud at any time. Also, lined or unlined paper? Do you like to sketch or scrapbook or do you want to keep this purely as words?

Durability. How long do you want this journal to stick around? Do you want to keep a collection of journals or do you plan to toss your writing soon after you’ve completed it? This especially might determine whether you pick up a regular spiral bound notebook vs. a hardbound diary.

Fanciness. Are you going to feel more comfortable writing in a cheap notebook, or will you be more inspired by a handcrafted leather-bound diary? Personally I found that journals that were too nice or expensive were too intimidating – I didn’t like feeling I had to write something as pretty as the book I was writing in.

Size and weight. Do you want to take this everywhere with you, or will it always stay on in your desk drawer? Maybe you want to be able to easily tuck it into your backpack or purse.

My journals from the last handful of years -- some of which traveled with me, or were picked up, on my sabbatical year (hence some of the non-Moleskine choices).

My journals from the last handful of years -- some of which traveled with me, or were picked up, on my sabbatical year (hence some of the non-Moleskine choices).

My own system: In my teens I used pencil and various sizes of spiral notebooks. Then, people started gifting me fancy journals – some of which had ornate covers, pages and fancy leather wraps, of all sizes. Finally, in my twenties I discovered lined Moleskine journals and have stuck to those exclusively ever since.

Since I often refer to my journals when writing, I like having a row of uniform journals on my bookshelf. I write the dates of the journal on the spine when I’ve finished one. This has worked great for me for at least the last 10 years. One confession: I’ve become more cheap in the last few years, which means that I now stock up on knockoff Moleskines, which are plentiful and a third of the price. Lately I've been filling one every 6-12 months, but this always varies.

2) Decide on your own journaling routine – and then don’t judge it!

Before you make a new resolution about how you’ll journal from now on, consider these factors:

Time. How often is reasonable for you to write in your journal?

Maybe you want to start with Pennebaker’s 20 minutes for three consecutive days. Or perhaps you want to try Cameron’s three morning pages.

Here’s my advice: Take advantage of a quiet moment that’s already part of your routine.

Maybe on Tuesdays, you don’t have to be at work until 10 a.m., so you usually treat yourself to a cappuccino at the coffee shop down the street. Why not take your journal along too?

Or maybe instead of heading straight to Netflix as soon as the kids go to bed, take your journal and a glass of wine to the sofa and first write for 20 minutes about your day.

Look for times when you can find enjoyment in this quiet activity. By all means, don’t turn it into a chore.

Purpose. Consider how you want to use this journal. Is it for venting? Is it for making sense of daily interactions? Is it to help you remember all the cute stuff your kids do, or what you’re learning in your new job?

Design your writing routine – and expectations – around this purpose. Don’t insist that you write something coherent and polished if you’re using this for processing. Don’t make it super involved if you’re a busy mom or dad. Tailor it, and your expectations, to your reality. Make sure your journal serves you and your well-being, not some other idea of what it should be.

3) Be nice to yourself.

Don’t worry if your writing isn’t pretty, or if you only write in your journal when you’re seriously annoyed with someone or something. That’s okay.

If keeping a journal is important to you, don’t let expectations about doing it “right” stand in your way. Just keep going.

Even writing only once a month over the course of a lifetime will add up to something substantial that your future self will appreciate.

Do you keep a journal – or has today’s post inspired you to start one anew? I’d love to hear your thoughts!