Why writing: the evidence

Success stories

For centuries, people have been writing for self-expression and emotional relief. Perhaps they knew, instinctively, about the written word’s healing benefits. Now, those benefits are being examined and set down by researchers and writing practitioners. A growing body of evidence shows that writing can be good for our health – both mental and physical.

So, why writing? Take a look at these examples of the exciting research and real-life success stories out there right now:

Improve your mental & physical health through expressive writing

I’ll never forget the initial thrill of finding that writing about traumas affected physical health.

– James Pennebaker

In 1986, James Pennebaker and Sandra Beall published a groundbreaking expressive writing experiment. It was so influential that researchers from around the world have been inspired to investigate the approach for themselves. Over 300 research papers have been published on expressive/disclosure writing and with fascinating results.

In the original study, participants were asked to write for 15 minutes a day over 4 consecutive days. Some were asked to vent their emotions about a traumatic experience; some were asked to relate the facts of such an experience; and some were asked to vent emotions and write about the facts of a traumatic experience. A final group was asked to write about superficial or irrelevant topics.

Six months later, the researchers followed up with their participants. The people who had vented their emotions and written about the facts of a traumatic experience reported improved moods and a more positive outlook, and incredibly their medical records revealed that they were visiting the doctor less often. 

These were astonishing results. Pennebaker wanted to know whether this was a one-off or something more profound, so he organised a second experiment.

Since then, the positive effects of expressive writing have been demonstrated in numerous research studies. It has been shown to offer benefits across a whole host of areas, including cancer treatment, the management of asthma and Rheumatoid Arthritis, post-surgery recovery, working memory, motivation, life satisfaction, school performance and more.

Here are some examples:

Harness the power of positive expression

These results add to the growing body of literature showing that the benefits of writing may be obtained by writing about topics that are not negative in tone or about experiences that are not traumatic.

– Chad Burton and Laura King

 

Following in the footsteps of Pennebaker and Beall above, researcher Laura King decided to test expressive writing’s abilities – but this time focusing on the power of positivity. 

Up to this point, most expressive writing research had focused on writing about traumatic events. In 2001, King published her study titled ‘The Health Benefits of Writing About Life Goals’. In her experiment, participants were asked to write for 20 minutes a day on 4 consecutive days. They were randomly assigned to write about their most traumatic life event, their best possible future self, both of these topics, or a nonemotional control topic.

Five months later, those people who had written about their best possible future self were associated with decreased illness compared with controls.

It appeared that writing about something significant and positive – in this case, a vision of one’s best possible self – could bring about similar benefits to writing about a significant traumatic event.

Burton and King followed up with a study in 2004 which involved writing about an intensely positive experience. The experiment revealed similarly positive results, with the researchers commenting that ‘this study, like others using the disclosive writing paradigm, indicates that writing ‘‘works’’—i.e., it is associated with superior health’.

 

Let your journal be a trusted guide through life

There’s a friend at the end of your pen which you can use to help you solve personal or business problems, get to know all the different parts of yourself, explore your creativity, heal your relationships, develop your intuition… and much more. 

– Kathleen Adams

 

Journaling has been a popular pastime through the ages. It offers the chance to record thoughts, express emotions and make sense of our lives.

 

While it can be as simple as picking up a pen and letting thoughts flow onto the page, various journaling techniques and approaches have been developed over the years to help individuals make the most of their writing experience.

Ira Progoff first published his Intensive Journal® method in the 1970s and workshops based on his process are still popular today. Progoff elevated journaling into a structured and rigorous approach to self-development that has been hailed as ‘one of the great inventions of our time’ (Joseph Campbell). His work has shown that journaling can yield dramatic results when approached with enthusiasm and dedication.

Kathleen Adams has been teaching journal writing since 1985. Her book Journal to the Self: Twenty-Two Paths to Personal Growth is packed full of activities and examples from her own life and teaching. From ‘Springboards’ to ‘Topics du Jour’, Adams demonstrates what a versatile, valuable and fun tool your journal can be.

 

Understand yourself & the world around you through poetry

A poem can offer a new way of looking at life and a chance to experiment with alternative courses of action.

– Victoria Field

 

When we read a poem that mirrors our own experience of the world it can be hugely comforting. Suddenly, we find that we’re not alone. Or perhaps we read a poem that challenges us by offering another point of view to our own. In both cases, these poems can be wonderful springboards for writing, reflection and self-development.

When we write a poem ourselves, the poetic form we choose offers a container for our thoughts, emotions and experiences. The tight structure of an acrostic or cinquain, for example, encourages us to condense our thoughts, really get to the heart of our experience and perhaps learn something valuable in the process.

Meanwhile, sharing our own poems – if we wish to do so – can be a healing process in itself. Being heard by others who are non-judgemental and open to our words is a powerful experience.

In fact, poetry can be such a powerful and flexible tool that ‘poetry therapy’ is now recognised in the US as an accredited therapeutic practice. At the heart of poetry therapy is the act of reading a poem and then responding to it – which can involve discussing it in a group, writing in response to it, or both. In this way, we can open ourselves to insights and new ways of being in the world.

 

There’s more...

We’ve outlined just some of the key benefits and approaches to writing above. But writing for wellbeing can go even further. Our writing activities draw on techniques from life coaching, positive psychology, counselling, therapeutic writing, and creative writing theory & practice. 

 

We can create a bespoke workshop experience for your organisation based on your team’s interests and needs.

What next?

You can experience the versatility of writing for yourself with our free online Wellbeing at Work Writing Toolkit

Choose an activity that interests you and allow yourself to be guided through the process of writing. No writing experience is necessary. All you need is a willingness to have a go!

“…the writing tasks for decluttering the mind and exploring positive/negative thoughts helped me rationalise my thoughts and feel more at ease!”

Orla – speech and language therapist

“I loved how there was a variety of techniques throughout the course, which meant that I was able to try different things and work out which worked best for me.”

Martha – student