Journaling: The Easy, Time-Tested Strategy For Becoming Happier and More Successful
Let's talk about journaling. Writing in a journal or diary is one of the best, easiest, low cost ways to improve your happiness, have more emotional intelligence, and to help you reach your goals. I believe that journaling is literally one of the best habits that you can have.
Journaling is easy to get started
First off, let's talk about one of the reasons journaling is a great habit, and a great "life hack." Journaling is easy to get started. You don't need complicated technology that takes a long time to learn. You don't need to buy some sort of expensive gadget that is out of your price range. It doesn't require fancy running shoes, or even require you to break a sweat like exercise does. It's not a difficult or complicated skill to learn, like meditation. While many beginners have felt frustrated when they first tried to sit down and meditate, writing in a journal is so easy that anyone can do it as long as they can write.
Whether you choose to write in a program like Microsoft Word, an app like Evernote, or with old-fashioned pencil and paper, you start to get the benefits of journal writing immediately.
What are the benefits of journal writing?
1. It's a huge emotional relief! For me, sometimes emotions can feel like I'm a pot on the stove, filled with water that is heating up. As things get hotter and closer to a boil, I can feel this internal pressure building up inside of me, like steam rising and filling my insides. All that pressure feels like it needs a release or a place to go. It feels like if it doesn't get released, it will drive me crazy! For me, the symptoms include physical feelings -- a feeling akin to pressure inside my chest, abdomen, and head -- and also my internal monologue. When I'm stressing over something, sometimes the voice inside my head repeats my grievance over and over again. Do you ever feel the same way when you're stressed?
And then -- BOOM! Once I've actually written or said aloud what I'm feeling, I feel this cathartic emotional relief. My body feels more relaxed. My breathing feels easier and freer. My thinking is no longer stuck in a rut -- I can think about other things. I feel like I can get on with my day, and get on with my life.
I think talk therapy -- with a psychologist or counselor -- can be very helpful, especially at some times in your life when you are feeling stressed or have major life changes going on. With a therapist, however, you have to wait until your appointment to unload everything going on with you emotionally. With journal writing, you don't even have to sit in the waiting room. You don't have to pay someone $100 an hour to listen to you. You don't have to schedule a session, interact with a receptionist, or deal with personality conflicts if your therapist doesn't meet your needs.
Another benefit of journal writing is that you are not venting to a friend, coworker, or your spouse. Sometimes complaining to another person, or using them as a sounding board to hear your ideas and give feedback, can be helpful. Too much, however, and it can put a strain on the relationship. If someone is your friend, coworker, or lover, they want to have that relationship with you -- and they don't want to be your therapist who is paid nothing and has to listen to your problems with no time limit. Unlike a human being, a journal will listen without judgment, complaint, impatience, frustration, personality conflicts, or demanding to be paid. A journal won't be angry at you for calling it up in the middle of the night because you have something you must get off your chest.
2. It helps you to emotionally nurture yourself. This is another reason why journaling is a quantum leap above and beyond venting to a friend or having sessions with a therapist. By writing in a journal, you are developing the skills of learning to support and nurture yourself. You are learning how to think through problems logically, and come up with solutions. You are learning how to talk to yourself in an empowering way.
I have written countless journal entries that begin with "I feel stressed / frustrated / angry / sad," then continue on to describe the situation and my reason for feeling the way I feel, and finally go on to describing what I'm going to do about it. "What I'm going to do about it" can be a lot of different things. A plan of action in the world ("I'm going to speak directly with the person I'm having conflict with, listen to his point of view, and we will work together to solve things.") A plan for an action to nurture myself ("I'm going to go for a walk outside to clear my head.") Or even re-framing the problem ("Now that I've thought about it, maybe it isn't the big catastrophe I had feared.")
Journal writing is a great opportunity to practice positive self-talk in a deliberate and intentional way. Let's suppose that you are going on a job interview soon, and you are feeling intimidated and unconfident. You could write, "Even though I feel intimidated by this job interview, I know that I have some great strengths that will help me. I'm going to list my strengths so that I can remember them." You could write, "Even though I feel nervous about this job interview, everyone else competing for this job probably feels nervous too." You could write, "Here are the things I'm going to practice in order to be prepared for the interview. And I'm going to set the intention of feeling confident and relaxed, and projecting a friendly and likeable personality during the job interview. I know that I have been confident and relaxed before, and so I can do that again. And I know that I am often friendly and likable, and so I can come across that way in the interview."
3. It allows you to record the monologue inside your head, and simultaneously step outside of that monologue. One of the skills commonly taught in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is called "cognitive restructuring." You could pay a therapist a lot of money to help you learn cognitive restructuring, but it doesn't cost you a thing to practice it yourself through writing in a journal.
Step one is to observe the automatic thoughts that occur in your head. Particularly the negative, distorted, or self-defeating thoughts like, "I never get my way."
Step two is to identify the distorted thinking in that thought. "I know that thoughts with the words always and never are often distorted thoughts. That is a sign of all or nothing thinking, which is a common kind of thought distortion. And this seems to be an automatic thought, because it comes up whenever I feel angry, sad, or frustrated."
Step three is to rationally dispute the thought in question. "Really? Never? Is it true that I never get my way? Has there never been a time in my life when I didn't get my way about something? Can I think of any time in my life when I did get my way? Well, now that I think about, yes I can think of times when I got my way! Not always, but enough that I can tell that my previous thought was distorted thinking."
Step four is to develop a rational rebuttal to the thought. "It's not true that I never get my way. And even though I feel frustrated right now, I will hold in my head the belief that I can find some other solution to this problem even though I've encountered a temporary roadblock or detour."
Let's suppose that internal monologue is saying, "I don't think I'll be able to get the job. I feel intimidated. I don't have great people skills, and so the interviewers probably won't like me. They'll probably hire someone else -- someone who is more qualified, or someone who isn't as qualified but is more charismatic and likeable."
4. It allows you to implement some awesome and advanced brain-hacking NLP techniques. Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) is an art / science of changing your mental states and replacing unhelpful beliefs with more empowering ones. Don't let the big, complicated words intimidate you. One of the most simple NLP techniques for changing an emotional state is very similar to the cognitive structuring discussed in #3. Here's how:
Step one is to observe or identify the feeling that you would like to change. "I feel hopeless."
Step two is to ask yourself, "How do I want to feel instead?" "I want to feel confident." Just by thinking about the feeling of "confident," you start associating into that state. You start feeling that way, "confident" rather than "hopeless." You can even start to expand on what you mean by "confident." "I want to feel powerful. I want to feel like I can do anything. I want to feel like I have the energy, and the focus, and the drive, and the willpower to do whatever I have to do. To overcome whatever obstacles I have to overcome."
(By the way, check in with yourself right now and notice if your physical or emotional state has started to change a little bit just from reading that paragraph. Have you started to associate into the state of "confident?" Are you noticing yourself feeling a little bit more excited by just thinking about how you feel when you feel confident? It can be fascinating to observe as it happens!)
Step three is to ask yourself, "How do I feel, when I feel confident? How do I know that I'm feeling confident, that confidence is what I'm feeling? Not just what thoughts do I have, but most importantly how does my body feel when I'm feeling confident? How is my posture when I'm confident? How do I carry myself?"
Step three and a half is to answer those questions. Think back to a time or a memory when you felt confident. Describe how your body felt. Describe how you breathed, how you stood, how how your neck, shoulder blades, shoulders, and chest felt. Describe how you looked people in the eye, how your voice projected and resonated when you spoke.
It's amazing how those three and a half steps can help you to get into resourceful states of mind and emotion -- help you to feel confident, focused, energized, or whatever it is that you need.
5. It allows you to take on other perspectives, as a experiment. To me, this is a great way of developing your empathy and your ability to understand other people and relate to them. It will help you to get along with people and work with them and cooperate with them more effectively.
For most of the first thirty years or so of my life, I was very stubborn in clinging to my own perspectives on things. I was always right, and people who disagreed with me were always wrong. Even on topics where I changed my mind -- I was right before I changed my mind, and I was right afterwards as well. As you can imagine, this was not the optimum mindset for being happy or for getting along with other people. My inflexibility made me a difficult person to have as a coworker, subordinate, son, boyfriend, friend, student, and the list goes on and on.
Not only did this mean that I had conflicts in getting along with others, but it also meant I suffered a lot inside my own head. I devoted a lot of my mental bandwidth to saying to myself how angry I was that so-and-so disagreed with me or wouldn't let me get my way. I was very judgmental, and would waste lots of my emotional energy lamenting how other people could make decisions that I thought were stupid and wrong.
Writing can really help in getting perspective. This is in part because it helps you to identify and step outside of your own thoughts, as described in #3. It helps you to disassociate from your thoughts. Likewise, it can allow you to step back from, or disassociate from, your own perspectives. You can look at a situation and say, "Let me imagine I am this other person who is in this situation. What motivates me? What do I care about, and what is important to me? What are my values? What are the big events in my life that influenced my perspectives, the ways I look at the world, and the things that I care about? And if I am this person, what might I choose to do in this situation?"
You know what I've discovered from doing this practice? There can be a situation is which I see things in a totally different way from another person, and that person has reasons for believing what they believe that are every bit as valid from their perspective, as my reasons for believing what I believe are valid to me. And I am not superior to this other person. We may have differences because we have had different experiences, different abilities, or we value different things. At the heart of things, this person probably has similar things that are important and valuable to them as what is important and valuable to me. Including the need for being loved, feeling understood, being appreciated and feeling important.
Even if I put myself in another person's shoes and try on their perspective, and still disagree with them -- this exercise is still extremely valuable to me. It reminds me to treat the person with respect. To not waste my mental energy being judgmental of them. To see them not as an enemy to be vanquished, but instead as someone who wants what they want for a valid reason -- even if circumstances may find us temporarily at cross purposes.
6. It allows you to keep a record that is frozen in time. This is a power that becomes more and more valuable over time. Can you imagine being able to look back and see exactly what you did and how you felt twenty years ago to the day? Think of how wonderful it would be to record yourself falling in love, striving to achieve a goal and succeeding, traveling to a new country. Think of how much insight and self-knowledge you would gain from being able to look back on your life and see patterns. See how you emotionally react to certain stimuli, and how your emotional reactions change over time as you grow and develop as a person.
7. It allows you to see the ups and downs of your emotions, and the seasons of your life. Keeping a record that is frozen in time can allow you to gain valuable insight. Let's suppose you are feeling discouraged. You would have tangible proof to be able to say, "Every time I've felt discouraged in the past, I eventually overcame whatever made me feel discouraged, found a way around it, or found something else to feel happy and excited about anything." Maybe you would even be able to say, "Everytime XYZ happens, I feel discouraged. So maybe I feel discouraged now because XYZ just happened, and I should just accept that I feel how I feel. I don't have to read too much into it or take my emotions too seriously. They are just emotions." Or maybe you can noticed the pattern and realize that whatever triggered you feeling upset is something that can be avoided. For example, if you notice that you always seem to feel moody after eating gluten or sugar, or feel angry after consuming a lot of caffeine. This self-knowledge can be eye-opening, and can change your life if you can figure out the lifestyle choices that help make you feel happy.
One of the lessons that many people say they learn from meditating is that emotions and thoughts can come and go, and they can change easily. No emotion lasts forever. I believe that you can learn the same thing, maybe even faster, from writing in a journal.
8. It allows you to write down your goals. Every writer or coach that teaches people how to be successful, endorses writing down goals. Not just your yearly New Year's Resolutions. Write down your goals on a regular basis, and you will see yourself growing faster and succeeding more. Write down your goals and the steps you will take to achieve those goals. Review what you have written, as you work towards those goals. Make changes as needed -- changes in your approach as you work towards your goals. You will be amazed at what you can accomplish.
9. It allows you to give yourself a pep talk. A pep talk is like emotionally nurturing yourself (#2 in this list), except with more energy and enthusiasm. Emotionally nurturing yourself focuses more on listening to what you have to express, and then answering it. A pep talk is the answer. Or sometimes it helps jazz you up and energize you, even if you weren't feeling down beforehand.
Write your affirmations. What what you're proud of. Write your vision for what a great day it will be today, and then make it happen.
10. It allows you to free up your brain by unloading it. In Less Doing, More Living, Ari Meisel recommends using the software program Evernote (which can be used for taking random notes, or keeping a journal) in order to "create an external brain." Write something down -- a thought, a worry, an idea -- so that you don't rattling around in your brain anymore. Meisel has argued that writing down and idea as soon as you have it tremendously reduces stress and frees up your brain to be creative. "Your brain is amazing at generating new ideas," he has argued, "but it isn't that good at storing old ideas. That's why you need to use Evernote as an external brain for storing information. It frees up your brain to generate ideas."
You could use a note-taking software like Evernote or Microsoft OneNote, but you can also get similar benefits by using a journal to unload your brain. As Meisel suggested, it could be that for every 9 bad ideas (for a business, a project, or whatever) you write down, you come up with one good idea. And it could be that you can't get to the good idea until you write down the bad ideas as well.
11. It can help you to focus on gratitude. The Five Minute Journal by Alex Ikonn and UJ Ramdas provides a journal format with prompts to help you focus on gratitude. You don't need to buy a journal with the prompts, however. It's just as easy to write them yourself. Studies have shown that writing about the things you are grateful for on a regular basis helps to make you happier. Whether it is every morning or just a couple times a week, write down some of the things that you are grateful for. At the end of the evening some days, write down what made today a wonderful day.
My experience is that I get more benefit from writing about gratitude when I am able to put more emotion into it. I don't feel very moved if I write down my gratitude list like a shopping list: "I'm grateful for my house, parents, wife, income, shoes, the weather, books, car. . . ." What moves me a lot more, emotionally, is to think about an experience I've had of how wonderful the thing is that I'm grateful for. I think about how my wife and I went to the park yesterday, and I think about the sights we saw, and our conversation. I think about the saxophone player we walked past, the way the sunshine streamed through the trees, and about my wife's smile. And I think about how fortunate I am to have someone who I love to share experiences like that with.
Gratitude journaling is actually gratitude training. When I write that I'm grateful for the salad I ate yesterday, the effect that makes me happier is not just because I'm thinking about that salad. Rather, I am training my brain to look for and focus on the things that make me feel grateful. It changes the way I see the world. When I'm stuck in traffic on the highway, I'm less likely to complain about how angry I am to be stuck in traffic. I'm more likely to think, "I see there is an accident up ahead. I hope everyone who is involved in the accident is alright. And I'm grateful that I was not in an accident. I'm grateful to be alive, and relatively healthy." And when someone on the highway honks his horn at me and makes an obscene gesture as he drives by, instead of feeling angry I'm more likely to feel grateful that I am not this other person who drives like a maniac and angrily gestures at other drivers.
12. It can be part of a great morning success ritual. I'm a big fan of Hal Elrod's book The Miracle Morning, which is on the topic of morning success rituals. A morning success ritual is a way to begin the day with positive energy and momentum. If you start your day on a positive note, it will set the tone for your day and you are more likely to be happy and productive and focused for the rest of your day. Elrod recommends starting your day with exercise, meditation, affirmations, visualization, reading, and writing.
Any time of the day can be a great time to write in a journal. I think writing in the morning can be one of the best times. If you write before most other people are awake, and before you need to get started with the rest of your activities of the day, you can be focused and uninterrupted. Any of the techniques I have listed earlier are great to use in the morning. You can write about gratitude, you can write down your goals and how you plan to reach them today, and you can give yourself a great pep talk. Give it a try, and then look at how your morning writing has made an impact on the rest of your day.
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I hope that reading this article has given you some valuable information that you can put into action to make your life better. Writing it was a positive experience for me, because it helped me to clarify and flesh out my ideas. I wish you good fortune and happy writing!