I’ve been journaling on and off for years, but I’ve never been too good at sticking with the practice. It can easily begin to feel like a chore, and fall off until I get another burst of enthusiasm to pick it up again.
But recently I’ve come across a plethora of evidence that I could derive some serious benefits from instilling a regular journaling habit. From physical and mental health benefits to stronger feelings of belonging and better grades, journaling is proving its benefits in studies all over the world.
The benefits of journaling
Researchers generally use the term “expressive writing” to describe the kind of journaling used in studies. Most often study participants doing expressive writing are asked to write about thier feelings related to an event, though sometimes they’re also asked to write more thoughtfully about the facts related to the event. As we’ll see, this distinction is important.
Expressive writing studies have found that the practice may improve working memory and sport performance, lower blood pressure, and even improve lung and liver function It’s also been linked to improved immune function in people with HIV/AIDS, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis.
A study of cancer patients found expressive writing correlated with better sleep quality, and another study of patients undergoing a biopsy found those who spent 20 minutes on expressive writing for three days in a row before the biopsy healed faster.
The benefits of expressive writing go beyond physical health, though. Journaling has also been shown to improve learning and performance in various settings. One study found people working a stressful fundraising job increased their hourly effort by 29% over the following two weeks after journaling for a few days about how their work made a difference.
A different study focused on the performance of new employees. In this case researchers found the employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day writing and reflecting performed 22.8% better than those who didn’t.
According to Harvard Business School psychologist Francesca Gino, this is because reflecting on our work reminds us we’re good at it.
When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy. They feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing.
Other research has focused on the benefits of journaling exercises for students. In one study seventh graders were given assignments to reflect on and write about the things that were most important in their lives. The writing exercises were handed out during the most stressful times of the year: the start of a new school year, before tests, and around the holiday season, when home life can be particularly stressful.
While white students in the study didn’t benefit in any meaningful way, students in racial minorities did, and the worst-performing students benefited most. For the worst-performing kids, grade repetition and remediation rates dropped from 18% to 5%, and overall the racial achievement gap among the students was reduced by 30%.
How to get the most from your journal
There’s no right or wrong way to journal. It’s an entirely subjective experience and your approach should suit your preferences and needs.
But if you care about reaping the benefits research has found, there are some things you’ll need to keep in mind.
Use your journal to process emotions and events
There is emerging agreement… that the key to writing’s effectiveness is in the way people use it to interpret their experiences, right down to the words they choose. — Bridget Murray, American Psychological Association
Just writing how you feel about events, rather than thinking about the meaning or lessons learned in those events—and vice versa—won’t provide you with the benefits seen in all this journaling research. The benefits arise when we use journaling to express our emotions and to work through them by thinking through things that happen and why they make us feel a particular way.
Traumatic or stressful experiences are often used in expressive writing studies, as they involve a lot of strong emotion.
According to health psychology researcher Susan Lutgendorf, “an individual needs to find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits from the writing exercise.”
While it might be easier to simply write about your emotions related to an event and move on, researchers say it’s important to process those emotions as well. By writing about your emotions and your rational thoughts related to a stressful event, studies have found you’ll be able to distance yourself from it and become less emotionally reactive.
We think the process of creating a coherent story out of disorganised emotional memories facilitates self-distancing because this process requires people to adopt other people’s perspectives and focus on broader contexts. — Jiyoung Park, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst.
Taking this idea of different perspectives even further, one study found writing about stressful events in third person can help us distance ourselves and process our emotions.
Taking an observer’s vantage may be vital to maintaining composure and making progress when trying to sort through a distressing or angering event or moment in life. — Matthew Andersson, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University
Write about your best self
While many of the studies mentioned here asked participants to write expressively about traumatic or stressful events in their lives, one study asked some participants to write about their best possible future selves.
Unsurprisingly, writing about future life goals was significantly less upsetting than writing about traumatic events. But it was also associated with a significant increase in subjective well-being right after the study.
And when the researchers checked in with participants five months later, both writing about stressful experiences and writing about life goals were associated with a lower rate of illness during that five-month period.
This is just one study among many, but it points to the possibility that we could reap the benefits of expressive writing without having to write about events and memories that upset us.
You could also pair this journaling approach with writing regular reviews to keep you on track toward your goals.
Write a weekly gratitude journal
Keeping a journal of the things you’re grateful for has shown similar benefits to expressive writing. It can improve your sleep, make you feel happier, and and decrease your chance of getting sick.
But gratitude journals don’t always work. Like expressive journaling, there are a few things to keep in mind if you want to reap the health benefits of writing down what you’re grateful for.
Robert Emmons, professor at the University of California and “arguably the world’s leading expert on the science of gratitude“, suggests focusing on the people you’re grateful for more than material things, and taking notice of unexpected events, as they tend to elicit stronger feelings of gratitude.
Emmons also suggests going into detail about a particular thing you’re grateful for, rather than focusing on a long-but-superficial list of items. The more detail you go into, the more you’ll savor the feelings of gratitude.
Finally, Emmons says not to write in your gratitude journal too often. One study found writing in a gratitude journal once a week for six weeks boosted participants’ happiness, but writing about gratitude three times every week didn’t. Humans are highly adaptable, and Emmons suggests writing about gratitude too often causes us to adapt and get used to the feeling. It means less to us when we experience it more often, so spreading out your gratitude journaling will be more effective.
If you’re new to journaling and don’t know where to start, here are some tools to get you going.
Day One is a popular journaling app for Mac and iOS that lets you create separate journals. You could have a gratitude journal, a daily journal, and even a work journal. You can also use IFTTT to automate storing your Instagram photos, tweets, and RescueTime stats in a Day One journal.
Another iOS and Mac option is the notes app, Bear. Though it’s not necessarily designed to be used as a journal, Bear lets you link to other notes within the app, add images, and use tags to organise your notes.
If you’re not an iOS and Mac user, or you’re already using Evernote for your daily note-taking needs, it’s an obvious choice for your journal. You can create as many new notebooks as you want for various journals, add photos, and take your journal with you on every device.
For those who like the feel of analogue tools, Hobonichi planners are a great way to start a daily journaling habit. These Japanese planners are used for everything from planning daily to-do lists to art journals and diaries. They’re made with Tomoe River paper, one of the best options available if you use fountain pens, and surprisingly tough, considering how thin it is (imagine something like Bible paper). The Hobonichi comes in A6 and A5 sizes, both with one page per day to keep you writing regularly.
Another popular analogue option is the Bullet Journal system, which can be used in any notebook. Or, you can purchase the official Bullet Journal notebook made by Leuchtturm1917. Whether you purchase the official book with pre-printed sections or write up the system in whichever notebook you happen to have handy, you’ll get the benefits of both organization and flexibility for your entries. The system includes an indexing method to help you find your entries later, as well as ways to keep track of your tasks and events alongside your journal entries. The great thing about this system is that it offers structure to help you get past the panic-inducing blank page, but it’s flexible enough that you can adjust it to suit your needs.
Whether you dash out a few lines into your phone’s notes app, or spend an hour writing in a leather-bound book, try finding some time to journal. Write about your best possible future self and how you might get there, or take note of the things you’re most grateful for. Writing a journal might seem simple, but it can have powerful benefits if you have the patience to stick with it.
Writing helps to organize thoughts, facilitate integration, and helps you accept your own experiences and put them in context. In essence, it allows you to see the meaning of events going on around you and create meaning in your own life.