“The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”
Does writing make people happier? Reams of research and scores of studies confirm that expressive writing — committing personal experience to paper — has major health benefits: It can boost well-being after a heart attack, reduce cancer symptoms in some patients, help control mood disorders, and even give flagging memories a shot of adrenalin. Now, not surprisingly, writing’s impact on happiness is attracting attention according to a New York Times article, “Write Your Way to Happiness (January 19, 2015).
Here’s the $64,000 question (actually, I’m sure all this research has a far higher price tag!): Can we rewrite our personal narratives in ways that lead to lasting changes in behavior and greater happiness? Or more simply, is writing transformative? Can we reshape and edit our personal stories in ways that enhance our well-being?
Most writers would probably shout a resounding yes — and need research no farther than their own head, heart, and hands for the evidence. Still, it’s comforting to know that the rest of the world is catching up with us. In one study, for example, students struggling with college were encouraged to change their personal stories to reflect a belief that they could improve academically. Within a year, only 1 student or 5 percent dropped out, while 20 percent of those in a control group left school. In a study of 120 married couples, those who explored a conflict with their partner through writing “showed greater improvement in marital happiness than those who did not write about their problems.”
“These writing interventions can really nudge people from a self-defeating way of thinking into a more optimistic cycle that reinforces itself,” notes Timothy D. Wilson, a University of Virginia psychology professor and author of a new book called, Redirect: Changing the Stories we Live By.
Many of us who’ve embraced the writing life learned about the power of words to heal, transform, and provide emotional solace very early in life. As a kid, whenever I was upset, I’d find some place quiet and write poetry. If I felt the need to escape from my everyday life when things weren’t going well, I’d pick up a pen or a book, and presto-chango, I was somewhere else. I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences.
What a gift to the world it would be if more people embraced the magic their own personal muse is waiting so eagerly to bestow upon them. We’re the lucky ones, so let’s write on!