Right now I am improving my well-being. I am practicing self-regulation, boosting my self-efficacy, and knocking on the door of a flow experience. I am learning as I go, adding to my knowledge not just about this topic, but also about how I learn. Depending on what I go on to say in the rest of this article, I may even be unleashing physiological responses that will boost my immune functioning and make me less likely to call my doctor in the next few months.
This is not a positive psychology magic trick. I am not practicing a one-man-band performance of positive interventions, trying to simultaneously walk on a treadmill, count my blessings, and imagine my best possible self. Instead all of these outcomes are the shared products of a single, simple daily habit: I write something every day.
Writing as a Swiss-Army KnifeI like to call writing the Swiss-army knife of personal change. Wrapped up in this one multi-function package are countless tools I can use for growth and personal transformation. Here are just a few of the things researchers have been able to achieve through writing interventions:
- Writing to learn – “Writing across the Curriculum” is an educational practice that extracts writing from the strangle-hold of English classes and puts writing exercises in every class, including math and science. While not all writing-to-learn exercises are universally effective, at least one meta-analysis shows consistent small, positive effects for these programs.
- Writing to heal – Many PPND readers are already familiar with the work of James Pennebaker and others on the role of expressive writing as a therapeutic process. When trauma victims write about these intense emotional experiences, they are often able to improve not just their subjective well-being, but also their physical health.
- Writing to grow – “Write down three good things that happened to you today and why.” “Write a gratitude letter.” “Write about your best possible self.” So many of the interventions we use as positive psychology practitioners start with the same underlying task: write something. Through these exercises, participants in these positive psychology studies have seen increases in life satisfaction and other measures of subjective well-being.
The Paradox of Writing WellThat’s a lot of benefits to be gained from a single intervention. So why do so few of us do it? I still sometimes hear students say things like, “I want to vomit every time I sit down to write.” Why is that?
I think the answer is what I call the paradox of writing well. The Catch-22 is that writing requires well-being to make well-being. Writing is an intensely demanding cognitive task, requiring nearly every bit of your attention. To put any words down on paper requires not just motivation, but also writing self-efficacy and enough self-regulation to resist countless temptations to do anything else. Writing may be a positive psychology multi-vitamin, but it can be a tough pill to swallow.
Writing is Like Exercise
In this way, writing is a lot like exercise. Physical activity has been shown time and again to offer a broad range of positive effects on well-being. Exercise tends to get easier and more enjoyable with practice. And yet exercise – like writing – can be a notoriously difficult habit to start.
With these parallels to exercise in mind, here are a few tips to help you get started with a regular writing practice:
- Writing every day is easier than writing a few times per week. When I miss a day, it becomes way too easy to skip two or three. The same often happens with exercise, as Jeremy McCarthy writes here. You don’t have to write much – just open that notebook at least once per day.
- Develop strategies to make it effortless to start. According to Roy Baumeister, self-regulation works like a muscle in that it can be depleted every time it gets used. Avoid the pitfalls of ego depletion by adopting habitual strategies that help you start. Some beginning runners sleep in their workout clothes and put their sneakers next to the bed. Where will you keep your paper and pen so that you are always ready to start writing?
- Write about something fun. Too often we delay writing until we get an assignment from someone else on a topic we are not all that interested in. No wonder we don’t like writing under those conditions. To build your interest and motivation for writing as an activity, pick a topic each day that inspires and excites you. An unintended side effect of the burgeoning research on positive interventions is the development of a number of fantastically fun writing prompts, like three good things and gratitude letters.
I cannot stress this last point enough. Ray Bradbury, the famous science fiction writer, once said, “If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half
a writer.” Writing without fun opens the door to anxiety and writer’s block and the kind of ruminative journal-writing that works counter to well-being.
By writing with zest and gusto and love and fun each day, I find myself answering “Yes!” with ever more enthusiasm to Anne Lamott’s question in Bird by Bird, “My gratitude for writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you, I ask?”
Bangert-Drowns, R.L., Hurley, M.M., & Wilkinson, B. (2004). The effects of school-based writing-to-learn interventions on academic achievement: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 74 (1), 29-58.
Bradbury, R. (1990). Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press.
Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Pantheon Books.
Newell, G. E. (2006). Writing to learn: How alternative theories of school writing account for student performance. In Macarthur, C.A., Graham, S., & Fitzgerald, J. (Eds.), Handbook of Writing Research (pp. 235-247). New York: The Guilford Press.
Pajares, F. & Valiante, G. (2006). Self-efficacy beliefs and motivation in writing development. In Macarthur, C.A., Graham, S., & Fitzgerald, J. (Eds.), Handbook of Writing Research (pp. 158-170). New York: The Guilford Press.
Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162-166.
Perry, S. K. (2009). Writing in flow. In Kaufman, S. B. & Kaufman, J. C. (Eds.), The Psychology of Creative Writing (pp. 213-224). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T.A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.
Torrance, M. & Galbraith, D. (2006). The processing demands of writing. In Macarthur, C.A., Graham, S., & Fitzgerald, J. (Eds.), Handbook of Writing Research (pp. 67-82). New York: The Guilford Press.
Zimmerman, B.J., & Risemberg, R. (1997). Become a self-regulated writer: A social cognitive perspective. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 22, 73-101.
Swiss Army knife courtesy of Biser Todorov
Typewriter in the park courtesy of an untrained eye – this picture has an interesting story, which you can find on the flickr site.
Pen and ink courtesy of churl han