The efficacy of writing in overcoming challenges has been studied in several areas. There follow some of the most interesting examples, although I am sure that the magic will work for any problem. (All emphases added.)
In 2009, a group of researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health published a study of a different approach to weight loss.1 They had assembled a group of sixteen hundred obese people and asked them to concentrate on writing down everything they ate at least one day per week.
It was hard at first. The subjects forgot to carry their food journals, or would snack and not note it. Slowly, however, people started recording their meals once a week—and sometimes, more often. Many participants started keeping a daily food log. Eventually, it became a habit. Then, something unexpected happened. The participants started looking at their entries and finding patterns they didn’t know existed. Some noticed they always seemed to snack at about 10 A.M., so they began keeping an apple or banana on their desks for midmorning munchies. Others started using their journals to plan future menus, and when dinner rolled around, they ate the healthy meal they had written down, rather than junk food from the fridge.
The researchers hadn’t suggested any of these behaviors. They had simply asked everyone to write down what they ate once a week. But this keystone habit—food journaling—created a structure that helped other habits to flourish. Six months into the study, people who kept daily food records had lost twice as much weight as everyone else.
“After a while, the journal got inside my head,” one person told me.2 “I started thinking about meals differently. It gave me a system for thinking about food without becoming depressed.”
You can find much of the same information, plus more, in the WebMD article Can a Food Diary Help You Lose Weight? (Many of the articles mentioned in the References below come from scientific journals that are only open to subscribers, but you will find their gist in this article.)
[The researchers] signed up twenty-nine people for a four-month money management program.3 They set savings goals and asked participants to deny themselves luxuries, such as meals at restaurants or movies. Participants were asked to keep detailed logs of everything they bought, which was annoying at first, but eventually people worked up the self-discipline to jot down every purchase.
People’s finances improved as they progressed through the program. More surprising, they also smoked fewer cigarettes and drank less alcohol and caffeine—on average, two fewer cups of coffee, two fewer beers, and, among smokers, fifteen fewer cigarettes each day.4 They ate less junk food and were more productive at work and school.
In 1992, a British psychologist walked into two of Scotland’s busiest orthopedic hospitals and recruited five-dozen patients for an experiment she hoped would explain how to boost the willpower of people exceptionally resistant to change.5
The patients, on average, were sixty-eight years old. Most of them earned less than $10,000 a year and didn’t have more than a high school degree. All of them had recently undergone hip or knee replacement surgeries, but because they were relatively poor and uneducated, many had waited years for their operations. They were retirees, elderly mechanics, and store clerks. They were in life’s final chapters, and most had no desire to pick up a new book.
Recovering from a hip or knee surgery is incredibly arduous. The operation involves severing joint muscles and sawing through bones. While recovering, the smallest movements—shifting in bed or flexing a joint—can be excruciating. However, it is essential that patients begin exercising almost as soon as they wake from surgery. They must begin moving their legs and hips before the muscles and skin have healed, or scar tissue will clog the joint, destroying its flexibility. In addition, if patients don’t start exercising, they risk developing blood clots. But the agony is so extreme that it’s not unusual for people to skip out on rehab sessions. Patients, particularly elderly ones, often refuse to comply with doctors’ orders.
The Scottish study’s participants were the types of people most likely to fail at rehabilitation. The scientist conducting the experiment wanted to see if it was possible to help them harness their willpower. She gave each patient a booklet after their surgeries that detailed their rehab schedule, and in the back were thirteen additional pages—one for each week—with blank spaces and instructions: “My goals for this week are __________ ? Write down exactly what you are going to do. For example, if you are going to go for a walk this week, write down where and when you are going to walk.” She asked patients to fill in each of those pages with specific plans. Then she compared the recoveries of those who wrote out goals with those of patients who had received the same booklets, but didn’t write anything.
It seems absurd to think that giving people a few pieces of blank paper might make a difference in how quickly they recover from surgery. But when the researcher visited the patients three months later, she found a striking difference between the two groups. The patients who had written plans in their booklets had started walking almost twice as fast as the ones who had not. They had started getting in and out of their chairs, unassisted, almost three times as fast. They were putting on their shoes, doing the laundry, and making themselves meals quicker than the patients who hadn’t scribbled out goals ahead of time.
The psychologist wanted to understand why. She examined the booklets, and discovered that most of the blank pages had been filled in with specific, detailed plans about the most mundane aspects of recovery. One patient, for example, had written, “I will walk to the bus stop tomorrow to meet my wife from work,” and then noted what time he would leave, the route he would walk, what he would wear, which coat he would bring if it was raining, and what pills he would take if the pain became too much. Another patient, in a similar study, wrote a series of very specific schedules regarding the exercises he would do each time he went to the bathroom. A third wrote a minute-by-minute itinerary for walking around the block.
As the psychologist scrutinized the booklets, she saw that many of the plans had something in common: They focused on how patients would handle a specific moment of anticipated pain. The man who exercised on the way to the bathroom, for instance, knew that each time he stood up from the couch, the ache was excruciating. So he wrote out a plan for dealing with it: Automatically take the first step, right away, so he wouldn’t be tempted to sit down again. The patient who met his wife at the bus stop dreaded the afternoons, because that stroll was the longest and most painful each day. So he detailed every obstacle he might confront, and came up with a solution ahead of time.
Put another way, the patients’ plans were built around inflection points when they knew their pain—and thus the temptation to quit—would be strongest. The patients were telling themselves how they were going to make it over the hump.
Quoting from The Myths of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. (The focus of the passage is on the difficulties of parenting, thus the emphasis on that.)
Jamie Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, discovered that writing out our deepest feelings about our hardships and torments (what he calls emotional disclosure or expressive writing) can bolster our physical and mental health.6 To date, he and other scientists have completed over a hundred studies supporting this discovery. Emulating the procedures they have used is very simple: Obtain a blank notebook or journal and start writing—at least for three to five consecutive days and ideally longer—your deepest thoughts and feelings about your most difficult and most upsetting experiences as a parent.
When scientists have compared participants who regularly write about their miseries to control participants who write about a neutral or superficial non-emotional topic (like the layout of their bedrooms or a detailed description of their shoes), they have consistently found that the “expressive writers” are happier, more satisfied with their lives, and less depressed. Furthermore, when tracked days or weeks later, the expressive writers [visit] their doctors less often in subsequent months, show stronger immune function, perform better at school or work, are less likely to miss work, and more likely to find a job after a layoff.7 (!)
In sum, emotionally expressive writing has clear hedonic, physical, and cognitive benefits—benefits that are likely to mitigate the unrelenting stress of parenting, the anguish of family traumas, and of balancing our own needs and obligations with those of our partners, children, and career. Keeping a journal about our parenting experiences is one of the most valuable strategies that we can avail ourselves of when trying to get a handle on painful or conflicting thoughts and feelings.
Initially, Pennebaker believed that the secret of this strategy’s success was the catharsis or “letting go” that it allows people who have been holding in their feelings. For example, we may have been feeling chronically guilty about coming home late from work, angry at our wife for never appreciating our labors, or overwrought about how to handle the travel required of our jobs. But it appears that the secret is not necessarily in airing these feelings but rather in the actual writing about them—the words themselves. Writing about our family worries and troubles helps us reconcile ourselves to them and understand them. Putting our emotional upheavals into words helps us make sense of them, accommodate to them, and begin to move past them; it ultimately prepares us to share these upheavals with close others. So language turns out to be critical. The act of converting intense emotions and images into a coherent narrative changes the way we structure our distress or pain, think about it, and integrate it into our life story. An acquaintance told me once that writing about upsetting experiences reduces them — compresses them, makes them smaller. When our traumas and difficulties shrink, they can be stored and diluted more quickly and more efficiently. If we develop the habit of keeping an expressive journal—and putting it to use even after minor traumas and bothers—the practice will pay dividends when major parenting upheavals inevitably come our way. An added bonus is the new-found appreciation, humor, and insight that we will inevitably gain when rereading the journal years or decades later.
Whether our optimism is big or little, many of us waver in our expectations for the future. Fortunately, numerous research-tested activities have been shown to boost positive thinking. The most robust strategy involves keeping a journal regularly for ten to twenty minutes per day, in which we write down our hopes and dreams for the future (e.g., “In ten years, I will be married and a home owner”), visualize them coming true, and describe how we might get there and what that would feel like. This exercise—even when engaged in as briefly as two minutes—makes people happier and even healthier.8
1.↑ F. Hollis et al., “Weight Loss During the Intensive Intervention Phase of the Weight-Loss Maintenance Trial,” American Journal of Preventative Medicine 35 (2008): 118–26. See also L. P. Svetkey et al., “Comparison of Strategies for Sustaining Weight Loss, the Weight Loss Maintenance Randomized Controlled Trial,” JAMA 299 (2008): 1139–48· A. Fitch and J. Bock, “Effective Dietary Therapies for Pediatric Obesity Treatment,” Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders 10 (2009): 231–36· D. Engstrom, “Eating Mindfully and Cultivating Satisfaction: Modifying Eating Patterns in a Bariatric Surgery Patient,” Bariatric Nursing and Surgical Patient Care 2 (2007): 245–50· J. R. Peters et al., “Eating Pattern Assessment Tool: A Simple Instrument for Assessing Dietary Fat and Cholesterol Intake,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 94 (1994): 1008–13· S. M. Rebro et al., “The Effect of Keeping Food Records on Eating Patterns,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 98 (1998): 1163–65.
2.↑ For more on weight loss studies, see R. R. Wing and James O. Hill, “Successful Weight Loss Maintenance,” Annual Review of Nutrition 21 (2001): 323–41; M. L. Klem et al., “A Descriptive Study of Individuals Successful at Long-Term Maintenance of Substantial Weight Loss,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 66 (1997): 239–46; M. J. Mahoney, N. G. Moura, and T. C. Wade, “Relative Efficacy of Self-Reward, Self-Punishment, and Self-Monitoring Techniques for Weight Loss,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 40 (1973): 404–7; M. J. Franz et al., “Weight Loss Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Weight-Loss Clinical Trials with a Minimum 1-Year Follow-up,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 107 (2007): 1755–67; A. DelParigi et al., “Successful Dieters Have Increased Neural Activity in Cortical Areas Involved in the Control of Behavior,” International Journal of Obesity 31 (2007): 440–48.
3.↑ Megan Oaten and K. Cheng, “Improvements in Self-Control from Financial Monitoring,” Journal of Economic Psychology 28 (2007): 487–501.
4.↑ Roy F. Baumeister et al., “Self-Regulation and Personality: How Interventions Increase Regulatory Success, and How Depletion Moderates the Effects of Traits on Behavior,” Journal of Personality74 (2006): 1773–1801.
5.↑ Sheina Orbell and Paschal Sheeran, “Motivational and Volitional Processes in Action Initiation: A Field Study of the Role of Implementation Intentions,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 30, no. 4 (April 2000): 780–97.
6.↑ Niederhoffer, K. G., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2009). “Sharing one’s story: On the benefits of writing or talking about emotional experience.” In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed; pp. 621–32). New York: Oxford University Press. Frattaroli, J. (2006). “Experimental disclosure and its moderators: A meta-analysis.” PsychBull, 132, 823–65. Pennebaker, J. W., & Seagal, J. D. (1999). “Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative.” Journal of Clinical Psychology, 55,1243–54. Finally, for a terrific introduction to Jamie Pennebaker’s work, buy a copy of [his book, Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Opening up. New York: Guilford].
7.↑ Many of these studies are reviewed in the following excellent article, by one of my former students and collaborators: Frattaroli (2006), op. cit. (See note 6).
8.↑ [King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. PSPB, 27, 798–807.] Burton, C. M., & King, L. A. (2008). “Effects of (very) brief writing on health: The two-minute miracle.” British Journal of Health Psychology, 13, 9–14. [Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology (RGP), 9, 111–31.] … [Boehm, J. K., Lyubomirsky, S., & Sheldon, K. M. (2011). A longitudinal experimental study comparing the effectiveness of happiness-enhancing strategies in Anglo Americans and Asian Americans. Cognition & Emotion 25, 1263–72.] [Lyubomirsky, S., et al. (2011). Becoming happier takes both a will and a proper way: An experimental longitudinal intervention to boost well-being. Emotion, 11, 391–402.]