Write your way to happiness

by Jack on August 2010

While I love writing for an audience and sharing ideas that I know will benefit others, there are times when I prefer to write for an audience of one: myself.

Writing just for yourself has many tangible benefits. At its core, personal writing is a great way to guide yourself along the path of living a happier life. For example, you can clarify your values, beliefs, and goals; identify areas where you want to change and improve; and explore how your mind responds to a wide variety of situations. It’s also a great way to take charge of your creative capabilities and channel your energy into producing and shaping new ideas. In short, journaling is a great way to get insight into into the way your mind works.

One of the most obvious happiness boosters from personal writing comes from the ability to record your habitual thoughts. As a result, you can surface and interrupt your most unproductive circular thought patterns – you can repeatedly expel those thoughts onto the page, in a tangible, recorded, external form. As a result, you can apply rational analysis to these thoughts and neutralize their power. You can far more easily deconstruct your thoughts, beliefs, habits and behaviors, and examine their real-world consequences when you’re writing, as opposed to when you are sitting and thinking (or worrying, or ruminating). It can sometimes be scary if you write things down with no self-censorship. But that’s also a great advantage of it, since you can bypass your internal barriers and habits of avoidance, and dig into the areas where you need the most work!

Looking back at your writing as a snapshot of your thinking at a particular time is also valuable. I have read journals that I wrote during difficult times, observed the patterns of how I was thinking and writing, and felt gratitude that I was in a happier situation. It’s also a lot of fun to review journals that describe good times, and to recall the positive memories and thoughts that were present in your mind at those times.

In your creative work, journaling is a great way to get random, partly-formed ideas down on the page where they can be refined, improved, and ultimately transformed into something valuable for yourself and others. Many times, in a flash of insight, I have come up with what seemed like an incredible original idea, and in a fit of humility and modesty, congratulated myself on my creativity and brilliance ;). Then, upon looking back over a few months of journaling, I would see the very same concept, or something similar, repeated many different times, in different ways. The subconscious mind was working on the concept over time, and eventually, the conscious mind caught hold of the idea and treated it as its own, with great self-congratulation and ego. So don’t take credit for everything you think! Just let the ideas flow where they may, and when you see a good one, catch it. πŸ™‚

If you would like to get started writing in a journal or other personal writing, but you’re not sure what to write down, here are a few simple, structured ways to get started.

A gift to your future self

When you’re in a particularly great mood or high energy state, it’s an excellent idea to write a letter to your future self, in anticipation of a future low point. Write down as much detail as you can: the process by which that state or mood arose; how grateful you feel that you are able to experience such happiness – as well as the specific reasons for it; and the specific pictures, sounds, sensations, and emotions that are stand out to you the most in your peak state. Interestingly, by performing this exercise a few times a year in order to help your future self out at a low point, you practice habits of happiness and actually make that low point much less likely to occur. (You’re probably not likely to say “Damn! I didn’t get to put my letter to my future self into practice!” πŸ™‚ – I bet you’ll just enjoy the greater happiness without even knowing why it’s there.)

Writing your side of the story

It doesn’t have to be a full biography. Perhaps something specific happened recently that was energizing, upsetting, or just interesting. By telling your side of the story you receive insight into how your mind operates. For example, you could write out your reaction to something that aroused negative emotions in you. It’s no good pretending those feelings aren’t there, but sometimes they aren’t always clear. By writing down your reaction and getting really specific about the feelings and sensations, you can understand they way your mind in particular responds to that situation. It’s often beneficial to get very tangible in your descriptions. For example: How did the reaction feel? What color was it? What temperature was it? Was it heavy or light? What were the pictures, sounds or sensations associated with your reaction? Did it remind you of any good or bad memories?

Dear so-and-so…

Write down things that you don’t believe that you could say directly to another person, for whatever reason. For example, the person might be dead or otherwise no longer present in your life; they might be emotionally inaccessible and unlikely to react well to your message; or they could be a role model who is hard or impossible to reach because of gatekeepers or because they are fictional (e.g. The Dalai Lama, God, Yoda).

This can be a very healing exercise. By releasing all your feelings, good or bad, onto the page- anger, frustration, pride, resentment, gratitude, happiness or whatever – , you can bring great clarity to your relationship with this person even when they are not present. After all, as Byron Katie said, “no one has ever been angry at another human being – weÒ€ℒre only angry at our story of them”. In doing this exercise, you can clarify what your “story” of this person really is.

In the world that I see…

Write down a detailed description of an idealized future, that you want to be your reality in the future – perhaps one, two or five years. When you get experienced with this technique you may want to stretch this out even further – 10, 20, 50 years – as you clarify your vision of your overall lifetime goals and contribution, your ultimate gift to the world. When you get practiced at this, it can be scary how accurately your vision of the future turns out to be. Is it the Law of Attraction in action? I don’t know. I’ve seen it work, though.

Brain dump

This is a creative writing exercise in which you write down a pile of “anything” for a specific number of words, pages, or minutes. There are no rules – you may write fiction, non-fiction, nonsense, poetry. It doesn’t even have to be grammatically correct. One of the most popular schemes for doing this is called Morning Pages, as presented in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. She describes them as follows:

Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages – they are not high art. They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind – and they are for your eyes only. (Julia Cameron)

In my experience, the process of writing morning pages “burns off” the surface layer of nonsense thoughts that are on your mind. As a result they help to stimulate creativity, release circular or unproductive thoughts, and keep your mind fresh, clean, and clear.

Keep a notepad with you

Journaling doesn’t have to involve a big, premeditated effort. Interesting ideas or insights can come to you at any time – on the subway, walking down the street, driving, in the shower. Obviously, when you write ideas down in these situations, you won’t likely write hundreds or thousands of words. However, you can easily record the key points of an idea in order to remember it for more detailed work later on. You can use a high-tech or low-tech method to do this – it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that you save these interesting little idea seed crystals for later use. Who knows where they might lead?

Final Words

Practicing journaling regularly is a great idea. Since the process is so versatile, it can be used in almost limitless ways for creative problem solving and idea exploration. Getting into the habit of writing regularly, for an audience of one, has great power to improve your experience of life, and generate abundant happiness.

What will you write about today?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura Mixon, PhD August 4, 2010 at 09:06

A great way to “get insight into the way your mind works.” So true! My journal has been my therapist for a number of years now. She does great work at reasonable prices! As usual, your suggestions are so well written, it’s always a pleasure to read 3TD. Thanks.

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Jack August 4, 2010 at 09:37

Thanks Laura! I appreciate your supportive feedback!

You’re right about the price – a notebook (even a fancy one like a Moleskine) is a lot cheaper than talk therapy πŸ™‚ Maybe they could be covered by medical insurance?

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