The Psychological Benefits of Writing
When you attempt to envision a “writer,” I’d posit most of you see a quirky recluse, hunched over a desk in some cabin, crumpled paper strewn about as they obsessively work on the next great American novel.
To me, writing is so much more than that. Writing is thought put to page, which makes all of us writers — even if we don’t have the chops to spin beautiful prose.
Personal and non-fiction writing is a fascinating topic because I get the sense that many successful people are secretly regular writers:
- Warren Buffet has described writing as a key way of refining his thoughts (and that is a man who reads and thinks a whole lot).
- Richard Branson once said “my most essential possession is a standard-sized school notebook,” which he uses for regular writing.
- Bill Gates has described writing as a way to sit down and re-evaluate his thoughts during the day.
There are obviously many more examples, some of which are beautifully highlighted in the book Daily Rituals.
In these cases, writing has just become another tool for thinking, expression, and encouraging creativity; cabin dwelling novelists be damned.
So, should people who don’t consider themselves writers bother with trying to make writing a regular habit?
Writing can be an incredibly useful outlet for many people, but let’s look at some of the research on how writing can affect the mind, and you can make the decision for yourself.
Writing makes you happier
It seems much of the literature on the benefits of writing deals with “expressive writing,” or putting what you think and feel to paper (or, let’s be honest, to the keyboard).
For instance, one form of expressive writing might be thinking about and writing out your goals in life—an activity that research has shown is beneficial for motivation.
Even blogging “undoubtedly affords similar benefits” to private expressive writing in terms of the therapeutic value.
Expressive writing has also been linked to improved mood, well-being, and reduced stress levels for those who engage in it regularly.
Research by Laura King shows that writing about achieving future goals and dreams can make people happier and healthier. Similarly, there’s plenty of evidence that keeping a gratitude journal can increase happiness and health by making the good things in life more salient.
And Jane Dutton and I found that when people doing stressful fundraising jobs kept a journal for a few days about how their work made a difference, they increased their hourly effort by 29% over the next two weeks.
Many people shun expressive writing because they don’t fully understand what it means. Stick with me through the rest of this post, see the other benefits of regular writing, and I’ll break down what expressive writing really entails and how you can get started.
It doesn’t necessarily mean spilling your guts in essays starting with “Dear Diary,” so don’t knock it until you let me explain it!
Writing leads to better thinking + communicating
Laziness with words creates difficulty in describing feelings, sharing experiences, and communicating with others — especially true when it comes to persuasive messages.
Constantly having that “tip of the tongue” feeling, or being able to flesh out thoughts in your mind only to have them come stumbling out when you speak is very frustrating. It paints an unfair picture of you, and regular writing can keep this from happening.
In both emotional intelligence and in “hard sciences” like mathematics, writing has been shown to help people communicate highly complex ideas more effectively.
Writing helps eliminate “it sounded good in my head” syndrome. It forces ideas to be laid out bare for the thinker to see, where it is much less likely that they will be jumbled up like they are in your head (hey, it’s crowded up there!).
Is writing an outlet for handling hard times?
The connection with expressive writing and traumatic events is quite complex.
On one hand, I’ve seen a study or two that shows especially stoic people tend not to receive many benefits when they write about their troubling times.
On the other hand, there are some pretty amazing studies that conclusively show writing about trauma is a powerful way to come to terms with what happened, and to accept the outcome.
The engineers who wrote down their thoughts and feelings about losing their jobs reported feeling less anger and hostility toward their former employer. They also reported drinking less. Eight months later, less than 19% of the engineers in the control groups were reemployed full-time, compared with more than 52% of the engineers in the expressive writing group.
In an older study, writing about traumatic events actually made the participants more depressed… until about ~6 months later, when the emotional benefits started to stick.
One participant noted: “Although I have not talked with anyone about what I wrote, I was finally able to deal with it, work through the pain instead of trying to block it out. Now it doesn’t hurt to think about it.”
It seems that timing is critical for expressive writing to have an impact. “Forcing” the process to happen may only worsen things, but if it is an activity that is engaged in naturally, the benefits seem to be clear for many traumas.
Writing keeps you sharp with age
Writing is a thinking exercise, and like physical exercise, it can help keep you “in shape” as you age.
While the only research that I’ve seen discussed mentions hand written ideas as a good cognitive exercise, I don’t think the leap to typing is all that far.
Just like how friendships help keep you happy and healthy through their ties to social interaction and dialogue, writing seems like the private equivalent — it keeps you thinking regularly and helps keeps the mental rust from forming.
Writing leads to increased gratitude
Counting your blessings is an activity that is proven to enhance one’s outlook on life.
As the authors noted in this study, subjects who reflected on the good things in their life once a week (by writing them down) were more positive and motivated about their current situation and their future.
The thing was, when they wrote about them every day, the benefits were minimal.
This makes sense. Too much of any activity, especially something like reflecting on one’s blessings, can feel disingenuous and just plain boring if it is done too often.
In spite of this, it is interesting to me that writing about the good things in your life has such an impact. Perhaps because it forces you to really look at why those things make you happy.
Writing closes out your “mental tabs”
Have you ever had too many Internet tabs open at once? It is a madhouse of distraction.
Sometimes I feel like my brain has too many tabs open at once. This is often the result of trying to mentally juggle too many thoughts at the same time.
Writing allows abstract information to cross over into the tangible world. It frees up mental bandwidth, and will stop your
Google Chrome brain from crashing due to tab overload.
Although I’ve heard it argued that the information age might be making memories worse, I’m inclined to cite the quote about Hemingway from that very same article:
Hemingway’s words came from experience. When his wife lost a suitcase that contained all existing copies of his short stories, the work was, to his mind, gone for good. He had written himself out the first time around. He couldn’t recapture it–whatever it was–again.
Getting important ideas down alleviates the stress caused by anticipating this dreadful outcome. I’ve personally never felt inclined to not work on something just because I “archived” the idea with some notes or an outline—in fact, I’m more likely to work on it since it has already been started!
Remember these wise words from Mitch Hedberg:
I sit at my hotel at night, I think of something that’s funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.
Don’t let that happen to you!
Writing leads to better learning
Information often better stays with us when learn as though we need to teach.
This concept of having a “writer’s ear” never fully clicked with me until I started writing regularly.
There’s a certain discipline required to create interesting written work that demands the individual be receptive and focused on finding new sources of information, inspiration, and insight. I’ve read books, listened to podcasts/radio, and watched videos I may have normally put off in order to learn something interesting that I might write about later.
Simply being a curator of good ideas encourages deeper thinking, research, and “heading down the rabbit hole” in order to find unique takes on topics that matter to you.
Committing to creating a volume of work also allows you to tackle big ideas more effectively.
From humble beginnings, writing around a certain topic for some time will allow you to build off of older thoughts, utilizing what you’ve already written down to develop ideas on a grander scale (I’m sure many writers have had a paragraph lead to an essay, which lead to a series of articles, which lead to a book).
In this way, writing encourages a specific style of personal development. You’ll begin to want to build on ideas, which will lead to a further exploration of your interests and a better understanding of your subject matter as you push onward into new topics and angles.
Writing is leadership at scale
I’m borrowing this phrase from James Clear.
Despite the fact that the world is now being suffocated by ‘new media,’ there are obviously a lot of interesting opportunities that an “anyone can publish” world brings about.
The ability to leave an impact at scale through your words alone is a pretty amazing concept.
The emails I’ve personally received, both for my personal work and my writing at Help Scout have been truly humbling. There’s a bit of a “creative shock” the first time someone emails you thanking you for the work you’ve put how, and how it has helped them.
Without a doubt, the positive feedback for this “leadership at scale” leads to a feeling of gratitude and happiness for the writer.
Even in the face of criticism (which is guaranteed online), writers learn to build thick skin like few others. Criticism, even unwarranted criticism, is the breakfast of champions.
What will you write today?
Whether it is recording a small moment of insight in a journal, or sitting down to spill yourself onto the page… I’d love to hear about what you plan to write today.