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
I also work with students who do not love to write, but they are talking about the kind of writing that is required, where they do not see that there is still a small amount of personal choice that they can add within the lines. So many assignments and comments and grades, so many adults sure that they know what the student needs to be able to write since that is what school requires. A “writer” is not the same as a person who is writing. I love that you identify with the former, and that it puts a smile on your face.
Thanks for writing this article! I agree, writing every day has many benefits. I structure my writing around a method called Questioning Mind, which uses questions as the focus for unlocking creativity, discovering direction, and enabling achievement. Now that I do it regularly, as you mention, it starts to take on momentum of its own; so when sit down, it is as if something has been poised and waiting to express itself. And with the Questioning Mind method – all I need to begin is a question – and who doesn’t have lots of those!
Thanks again for your contribution – was a welcome start to my day.
All the best,
Reb – I’m somebody who doesn’t like writing – I do it under protest. I much prefer a good conversation.
I don’t think its usewful to generalise that everyone will get a benefit from writing. The trick for PP is to identify those who potentially could.
Key message is “different horses for difference courses”
Hi Wayne– You underestimate yourself. You are one of our most prolific commenters here. What do you mean by writing? I think by broadening your definition you will find that there is much that you are currently writing, and whether or not it leads to a published work, as Reb has done here, is not the point. That you use written language to express yourself is. Maybe you post comments because it decreases your well-being, but I don’t think so! It keeps you connected to this community. Other people (you!) matter 🙂
Sherri – good points. However my comments are more like a conversation.
Hi, Reb, and all,
Great post. I think many people have a hard time biting the bullet to write because no one has ever taught them to shoot the gun, let alone aim at the target. I am amazed, when I look back on my education, no creative writing class was ever offered. I was 59 when I finally took a class and loved it. I think there is much fear about what you write being judged, too. I notice my coaching clients make excuses about their grammar, vocabulary, and syntax, their inner critic alive and well. Lots of food for thought and action to banish the “Wrong Writing” bully and muscle up self-regulation and pen positivity. I just published my first fun book, “Photo Adventures in Cuba ~ Unlock Your Power of Positivity” (http://www.coachingpositivity.com. I learned more about strengths spotting, constellations, and my self than I ever would have dreamed.
I respect and admire you, Reb, and all regular talented bloggers here. You are a joy. Know that you, your news, and insights are appreciated. You keep the fires of creativity and love of learning burning!
Excellent compilation of why writing can lead to some strong positive emotions and well-being. But I have to agree with Wayne. Writing is not for everyone (although I believe it is for Wayne, but I’ll get to that). I utilize writing constantly because I love it and love the process. But running workshops and suggesting to people that they journal, blog, or write creatively I run into the hesitation and dare I say, hatred that Wayne indicated. For as strongly as some of us feel about the benefits of writing there are others who don’t experience the positive emotions. Why?
My personal theory is that many of us have an editor running around in our heads saying that we are not good enough (I still occasionally do). Some of us have been able to silence or at least quiet the editor so we can write, but others cannot put a word down without an inner voice criticizing them. The only advice I give to them is a quote attributed to Hemingway “write drunk, edit sober.” Just kidding, but if we allow ourselves to just put things on a page without editing, we can experience the outpouring of emotion and/or thought. Then going back to our work we can see where the editing needs to happen, but we are much more likely to keep what we’ve written.
Finally writers write. That’s why I agree with Sherri that, yes, Wayne, you are a writer. Good writing is good conversation, just articulated in many different voices. Whether it’s a blog, a comment on a blog, poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction it doesn’t matter.
Reb, thank you for starting the conversation. Continued success on your writing.
Absolutely, Scott–good writing is a conversation. Sometimes you are talking to yourself, and other times to a cherished confidant or perceived enemy. It is difficult, sometimes, to think that someone else is going to read what you write or that (gasp) they (or you) will criticize it. Wayne, do you use Dragon so that you can chat with your computer?
Thank you all for the great comments and dialogue. One of my favorite ideas from the “writing to learn” literature is that writing assignments in school are not meant to be monologues, with the student spouting off knowledge in one direction to the teacher. Instead, ideally, writing assignments are entry points into a “co-curricular conversation”. I’m actually borrowing that term from the literature, not from Wayne’s post. In certain contexts, writing and conversation can share many, many parallels.
To Scott and Wayne – I have to respectfully disagree with your points. The question of “right-fit” is an interesting and important one in positive psychology. But I don’t think it applies here, at least not to “writing” in general. “Writing” is not a single positive intervention. It’s a category or type of intervention.
To use the analogy from the article, I would argue that writing is akin to exercise as a category of interventions. Within exercise, some activities are better and worse fits for different individuals. I am not much of a runner, but that doesn’t mean I should conclude that exercise isn’t for me. Instead I try a different type of exercise – in my case, cycling. Knowing the broad and important benefits that exercise offers, no personal trainer would let me throw out all of exercise because I didn’t like one particular activity.
Within writing, some activities are going to be better and worse fits for individuals. Some people love writing essays and stories, while others are better off sticking to journal writing or letters. This is where Sherri’s point about framing becomes so important – if you define “writing” as only formal writing for publication, it’s clear that won’t fit everyone. When I talk about “writing” here, I talk about in the broad context of a process that can be applied many different ways.
There’s one more reason I disagree with the idea that writing is for some people but not others: That line of thinking assumes that an individual’s relationship with writing is fixed. Yet as Judy pointed out, most people have had little instruction in writing, or at least not since high school. They have developed beliefs about writing as an activity, and about their own abilities as a writer. For some reason, we tend to assume that those things are fixed when it comes to writing. Yet one of positive psychology’s strengths is helping people recognize those limiting beliefs so they can then re-frame them. When I teach writing workshops, most of my instruction is on psychological strategies to improve the writing process, rather than directly teaching the craft of writing.
Research on interest and motivation for writing tends to break down interest two ways: We can be interested in writing as an activity, and/or we can be interested in our writing topic. The best writing tends to come when we are interested both in the task and in the process. But the research also shows that even if a student doesn’t have interest in writing as an activity, getting the student to write about a topic of interest opens the door to all the learning benefits of the writing activity. Over time, writing regularly about interesting topics has been shown to increase the student’s interest in writing as an activity. That’s why I think it’s important to write about something fun. I often find that the people who tell me they hate writing have never tried to write about anything fun.
Is writing going to help every person every day? With two superlatives in that question, of course not. Will it help most people most days? I believe so.
Thank you again for the comments – you inspired me to write a very long reflection on this topic this morning that has helped me clarify my own thinking. I hope the conversation continues.
Reb, that’s 639 words to add to your daily total 🙂
Thanks for your further comments, Reb. I was one of those people who thought I could not write after my freshman English professor (who told me we were related)publicly chastised me in my advanced English class. After all, we were descendants of Edgar Allen Poe and other authors. He further admonished I had let him down as he had expected me to shine. I swear from that day on, I had the fixed idea I could not write. Writing was all or nothing.
Even after I was shocked to receive praise for my clinical pscyh forensic evals, radio and tv scripts, in my mind, I knew I would never be a decent writer. Enjoy it? Writing was a kin a 10-ton mammoth sitting on my chest. Fun and writing inhabited two distant planets.
Enter coaching several years ago. I could work or play at writing. Well, I’ll be blamed. I reframed and regrouped and relaxed. Reb, you are so right. Writing is one one entity, but until your post, I had never conceptualized it that way. I decided to read more, watch for metaphors, and only write short, fun experiential blogs about strengths and positivity.
I am not a learned researcher as are many of you, but I surely do scoop up your knowledge and pay it forward to clients. Best? I help some hurdle their own writing fears. I am going to print this post to remind me to juggle joyful words rather than worry about them. Many thanks!
Reb – l know this is rather lame on my behalf but I guess you have research supporting your position – people randomly assigned to a writing group, with a control in place – perhaps a book club with longitudinal followup.
If there is one thing I have learnt as a pp practitoner it’s never extrapolate my values and beliefs on other people
Thanks for sharing your story, Judy.
Oz – I listed a number of relevant studies at the bottom of the article, and there are certainly more I didn’t include here for space. To my knowledge, there has not been one study that specifically tests the value of writing every day versus a control activity. Instead I make my recommendation based on a number of studies showing significant results from different writing interventions. Think of this not as one intervention, but as a program or habit of many interventions that have been independently tested and validated.
i am Ph.D in psychology and i love writing and i make my kids also write whatever they want to, for some time. deep down i too believed writing habit had got to do with building personality and your thoughts just confirm that.well done.keep floodng with such positives.
Reb – I think the executive overview might be writing may be good therapy for some people – however this has yet to be proven
I’ve frequently heard that Americans are more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying. I have no idea how anyone would know that, but the point is still dramatic. I remember asking a mentor how he became comfortable getting in front of groups, large and small. After a slightly confused expression on his face, he said, “I guess it’s because I have done it a lot.” I’ve found myself that the way to get over stage fright is to give lots of talks in spite of having stage fright. Of course the level of stage fright varies tremendously. I remember a 6-year-old girl in my daughter’s first grade class who narrated an entire play called “Going Buggy” — while my daughter was in the back row of the honey bees trying to be invisible.
I guess this is a lead up to observing that people often don’t find writing fun or rewarding when they first start but may be lucky enough to cross a threshold where it becomes fluent and beneficial with considerable practice, and the level of resistance is quite variable across a population. For one thing, people who don’t read much are likely to find it less engaging to write. Why produce something you don’t like to consume?
I also think the exercises that Nancy Andreason described in her book, The Creative Brain, might be helpful. For a summary, see I Disagree with Myself! Creativity and Learning Together. I once took a writing class where the instructor suggested a way past writer’s block: sit quietly, doing nothing, for 5 to 10 minutes and then start writing down ideas on yellow-sticky notes as fast as possible. I don’t do that often any more, but I know I can do it when the well runs dry.
As a family therapist, I often encourage families to keep a collaborative journal of family values, history, conflicts, goals, news, relationships, experiences and conversations. This can be kept online for review and discussion. It has been a source of reconciliation, understanding, discovery, care, loyalty and joy for family members.
When entries sometimes have a negative impact, the family is able to focus on continued entries, vocabulary, accuracy and style. With a dedication to writing, issues are often resolved in ways that speaking never accomplishes.
Although I’ve worked with members of my own “internal family system” through thoughtfulness and conversation with friends, you’ve encouraged me to begin writing my internal dialogue. It’s enlightening. The daily discipline makes it transformative.