It Turns Out You Can Write Your Way to Happiness. Science Even Says So.

If you've attended ANY of my workshops, you've heard me talk about free writing--writing by hand to get at the truth. Rather than worry about sounding good or how your words will come across, just write until you arrive at something new. An insight. A realization. A mental space that's less cluttered. I expect people to love it or hate it. And if they hate it, I've come to expect reasons like these:

  • It's S.L.O.W.
  • It feels like a waste of time.
  • It's too much "I" (You know, too much focusing on yourself.)

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I try not to sweat it. I put it out there and trust that people will use it when they're good and ready. But you can imagine my delight when a WritingStrides subscriber sent me a link to a New York Times article on the benefits of "expressive writing".

First of all, I love that name and might need to borrow it. Second, researchers are discovering something I find pretty darn awesome: writing and then rewriting your story can lead to changes in behavior and increased happiness. Here's the thinking, according to the article:

"The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health."

It went on to share several examples from the research on expressive writing, but the one that struck home--and that seems most pertinent to writing--had to do with diet and exercise. People wrote down their reasons for not exercising. And then they took a closer look, revising what they'd written to get at the real reasons. Turns out the second version was more truthful. (You can read about it in the full article on the New York Times website.)

And isn't writing all about revisions??   Perhaps the idea of getting to the truth sounds scary. I get it. You could call my entire graduate school career an experiment in expressive writing. I wrote in depth about my life, and it forced me to see the truth in ways that I did NOT want to see it. I spent a good year and a half scared of whatever I would write next. But then? Staring all that truth in the face, I stopped feeling scared. I started making different choices. Choices that landed me in Colorado and in the middle of a life I wouldn't have dreamed possible before all that writing.

So here's the takeaway that I see: when you engage in free writing or expressive writing, you have the ability to not only arrive at truth, but to call yourself out on your own b.s. And seeing your own b.s. isn't it about failure or being flawed or even discovering, once and for all, that you're really a fraud. It's about uncovering the power to do things differently... So yes, I'll buy the idea that writing can lead to happiness.