Updated: May 5, 2022
Learn about the science of journaling and how to use it to improve your life.
We may have the assumption that all journaling is good for us, but the last few decades of research have shown us that the extent to which journaling—or expressive writing—is good for us depends a lot on what, exactly, we write about.
One of the most common journaling techniques is freewriting (or free-flow writing). Freewriting involves writing whatever comes to our mind by just letting the thoughts come and putting them onto the page without any filters or concern about grammar, spelling, or storyline. This may include both conscious thoughts and other thoughts that bubble up from the unconscious.
In particular, writing about emotional experiences tends to result in improvements in mental and physical health. More specifically, these benefits can come from 15-30 minutes of daily journaling for 3-5 days (Pennebaker, 1997). That's it. That means that daily journaling for just one week can result in some benefits.
The reason why expressive writing works appears to be because inhibiting our thoughts and emotions is bad for our health. By disclosing the things we haven't told anyone, we help release that burden of keeping it all inside ourselves (Pennebaker, 1997). And because a journal is private, we can freely and comfortably share thoughts and feelings that we might not feel comfortable sharing with others.
To try a science-based approach to journaling, use these instructions:
Write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about an important issue that has affected your life. You might tie your experience to your relationships, past experiences, or anything else that seems relevant.
Try to write daily for 5 days in a row or weekly for 1 month—both approaches appear to be effective (Pennebaker, 1997).
More Journaling Ideas
In addition to Pennebaker's research on expressive writing, a variety of other journaling approaches have been studied. These other journaling approaches may be a bit easier and more approachable for most of us. Let's talk about some of them now.
In a gratitude journal, we aim to cultivate appreciative feelings (Kaczmarek et al., 2015). So we might write about experiences we're grateful for, create gratitude lists, or even paste in pictures of things to create a sort of gratitude collage.
Reflective journaling is thought to aid experiential learning—or learning from our real-life experiences. You might start by first reflecting on the details of an experience. Then, aim to interpret the event to try to understand what happened and find meaning or value in it (Hubbs & Brand, 2005).
Some studies have looked at the impact of journaling on current health issues like cancer. Like other forms of expressive writing about emotional experiences, this type of journaling appears to result in reductions in mental health issues like depression and anxiety for those with health issues. Specifically, it appears that writing about negative emotions is largely responsible for these positive impacts (Smith, Anderson‐Hanley, Langrock, & Compas, 2005).
Another popular form of journaling is goal journaling. This may involve less freewriting and may be more structured to help you set goals, plan, and track activities. Given goal-setting research supports all of these types of goal reflections, this type of journaling can indeed be beneficial and help you reach your goals.
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Hubbs, D. L., & Brand, C. F. (2005). The paper mirror: Understanding reflective journaling. Journal of Experiential Education, 28(1), 60-71.
Kaczmarek, L. D., Kashdan, T. B., Drążkowski, D., Enko, J., Kosakowski, M., Szäefer, A., & Bujacz, A. (2015). Why do people prefer gratitude journaling over gratitude letters? The influence of individual differences in motivation and personality on web-based interventions. Personality and Individual Differences, 75, 1-6.
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological science, 8(3), 162-166.
Smith, S., Anderson‐Hanley, C., Langrock, A., & Compas, B. (2005). The effects of journaling for women with newly diagnosed breast cancer. Psycho‐Oncology: Journal of the Psychological, Social and Behavioral Dimensions of Cancer, 14(12), 1075-1082.