Writing a journal has a long history. Journals from China have been dated to the first century AD, and appear to have been preserved as historical documents. Journals from tenth-century Japan were also considered historical, and produced a unique form of women’s literature. Travel journals date from the ninth and eleventh century. Pilgrimage journals were popular in the middle ages. The Puritans and others took up spiritual journaling, and the Renaissance brought in more autobiographical self-disclosure. During the nineteenth century journals were becoming less descriptive and more reflective.
By the twentieth century, the therapeutic value of journaling began to be recognised. Now we can find art journals, nature journals, and spiritual journals. We also have writers’ journals, leadership journals, and scientific journals. Why all these journals?
Author Ron Klug describes ten benefits of journal keeping, including growth in self-understanding, releasing emotions and gaining perspective, and making sense and order of life (Ron Klug: How to keep a spiritual journal, 2002).
Thai Nguyen wrote in the Huffington Post of ‘10 surprising benefits you’ll get from keeping a journal,’ including evoking mindfulness, achieving goals, strengthen your self-discipline, and sparking creativity.
Twenty benefits of journaling are given by Wee Dilts in an article ‘Discover the benefits of daily journaling.’ These include promoting healing, enhancing life, clearing mental blockages, and bringing joy and humour.
While the subjective personal opinions of writers with regard to the benefits of journaling certainly bear investigation, scientific research is discovering that expressive or therapeutic writing has measurable physical and psychological benefits.
In the USA Ira Progoff developed Intensive Journal Workshops, and in Japan Morita therapy centred on the written journal co-authored by patient and therapist. Following research on journaling, psychologist James Pennebaker developed a method of using expressive writing to help patients recover from trauma.
A paper on ‘Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing’ appeared in the journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatment in 2005. Authors Karen Baikie & Kay Wilhelm list the medical benefits of expressive writing, including: improved immune system functioning, improved lung and liver function, reduced blood pressure. Their study also noted improved mood and a feeling of greater psychological well-being among patients. They also noted positive social and behavioural outcomes, including quicker re-employment after job loss, improved working memory, and even improved sporting performance.
In one study, those who kept a ‘gratitude journal’ were observed to have increased overall well-being and experienced less stress and depression. They also reported higher levels of optimism and self-esteem. Moreover, they had fewer physical health complaints. (Robert Emmons: Thanks!–How the new science of gratitude can make you happier, 2007)
Tal Ben-Shahar describes a study where participants were asked to write down at least five things for which they were grateful, every day. Result? They felt happier, more determined, more energetic, and more optimistic. They also slept better, exercised more, and had fewer symptoms of physical illness. (Tal Ben-Shahar: Even happier–A gratitude journal for daily joy and lasting fulfilment, 2010)
According to psychologists Minirth, Meier & Arterburn, the process of recovery begins with exploration and discovery. We can explore our past and present life in order to discover the truth about ourselves and our feelings. A journal is the perfect place to begin to do this. (Minirth, Meier & Arterburn: The complete life encyclopedia, 1995)
Motivation is the key to sustained journaling, it is what makes you set aside the time and space to put pen to paper. Reasons to write a journal may include:
- It can help you name and understand your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
- It is a powerful tool for self-exploration, for increasing mindfulness and self-awareness.
- It can be a great productivity tool, to become more efficient and effective in you professional life.
- It can be a heritage or heirloom for your family and children to remember you.
- Maybe you read someone’s published journal and felt inspired to write your own.
- It might be fun, and you might enjoy it.
All of these are good reasons; but you don’t need a reason—just get started.
There are a number of journal programs available for computers and smartphones—and I don’t mean calendars or planners. Personally, I do not recommend them. I think that there is something significant about setting aside time to sit down with pen and notebook, and also in writing by hand. An article in the New York Times, ‘What’s lost as handwriting fades,’ describes research that indicates we learn better, and we remember better, when we make notes by hand.
I recommend a solid and substantial notebook, hardback if possible. I prefer lined pages, and these days dotted grids seem to be popular. I avoid diaries with the dates printed, as they limited the space in which I can write. I avoid loose-leaf binders, as they are too flimsy, and pages may tear or fall out. I also avoid hand-made ‘gift’ notebooks. Your notebook needs to be well-made and it needs to last. I suggest a size of A5 or (my preference) B5. I find B5 (approx 7 x 10 inches) is the Goldilocks of notebooks, as A4 is too big and anything smaller than A5 is too small.
Jim Rohn, a writer on leadership and success, spoke about buying an expensive leather-bound notebook for his journal. He said, “Somebody once asked me why I pay as much as I do for an empty book, and my answer was simple: I intend to put something valuable in it” (Jim Rohn audio tape: How to use a journal).
I find it both serendipitous and whimsical to have a quality notebook, a decent fountain pen, and some beautifully coloured ink with which to write. You don’t have to do that: gather your happy stuff and find what works best for you.
Some basic guidelines:
- Date every entry
- Don’t edit what you write
- Ignore spelling and grammar
- Don’t worry about your handwriting
- Hesitation, repetition and deviation are permitted
- Write about anything you want
- Write as much as you want, or as much as you need to
- Write as often as you want. Daily is good, if that works for you
If you find it difficult to freely put your thoughts into writing, or are simply struggling to know where to begin, you might find it helpful to have a structure to help you. Try answering specific questions, such as:
- What is happening in your life? How does it make you feel?
- Write about the things you are grateful for today.
- Write about a time when… a place where… or a person with whom… you were/are happy.
- Write about your struggles, disappointments, and fears.
- Write about who/where you would like to be in five years’ time. How could you get there?
- What would you do if you were fearless? What new things would you try?
It is important to move away from a mere record of events, and to write about how those events affect you. Remember, you are not writing a coherent narrative: it only has to make sense to you. You are not writing to impress anyone: your audience is yourself. You can skip the What just happened and jump straight in to the How I feel.
When you think about putting your innermost thoughts and feelings down on paper, you may rightly worry about who may read them. You might want to make it clear to others that your journal is private, and you expect them to respect that. You might want to lock it in a drawer or desk. Samuel Pepys used a shorthand code in his diary, and Leonardo da Vinci famously used mirror writing in his notebooks. You might want to put a phone number or email address in the front of the journal, in case you leave it somewhere. One writer is said to have warned any would-be readers: “Danger! You may not like what you read in here!”
This is important, because the greatest benefits come when we can write without hindrance, and with honesty. Some writers will destroy their journals after a period of time. Other might stipulate the journal is to be destroyed after their death.
We must also balance our journals to see that they are not merely the dumping ground for our negative thoughts and emotions. Much good can be done in engaging with, and releasing these things with the help of a journal. Sometimes, we need others to journey alongside us. Sometimes, we need professional help.
A journal shouldn’t just be a net for the flotsam and jetsam of life, it should also be a place for recording and retelling our joys, our stories of wonder, and be a springboard for celebrating life. Nations celebrate or remember events such as Independence Day, Remembrance Day, Black History Month, and so on. Religions celebrate important events such as Passover and Christmas. Many cultures mark the transition from childhood to adulthood with rituals and ceremonies. In a journal you can record the defining times and moments that are important to you and your family.
Saint Augustine famously heard a voice telling him to “pick up and read;” my hope is you will be inspired to pick up a pen and write. Your story matters, and only you can tell it.
About the authorAlistair Sanders has been writing a journal for over thirty years. He also leads workshops and seminars on journaling.