Do random thoughts swirl in your mind before you go to sleep? If suddenly awoken in the night, do you sometimes find yourself obsessing over minor things from the previous day, things where you're just now thinking of all the things you wish you'd said and all the things you will say? Does it feel like some of your best relationships keep hitting the same speed bumps, like some type of strange deja vu of who-offended-who?
My deepest desire, in this arena, at least, is that I take all this life experience that people talk about and actually make sure I'm learning from it. There are definitely some old business guys who talk about how they "were a young gun once, too", but self-flattery seems easy, and wisdom sure feels hard-won. And after doing a review of the scientific literature, I think I've found something everyone should be doing: keeping an emotionally expressive journal, and reading it.
I'm not going to you can't google this – there are tons of studies, and they seem to be of decently high quality. This isn't like mediation, where something like 90% of the studies don't even use a control group. Emotionally expressive journaling helps, and helps so much you can even detect the benefit by tying it to actual improved physical health outcomes. No need to worry if self-reports are riddled with placebo. You could imagine fewer ulcers, fewer heart attacks, etc (although the literature is way more careful about such claims), and that's the sort of benefit many studies seem to find.
It's not meant to be a replacement for in-person therapy or getting serious help. Which is good, in some ways – it means journaling is a better compliment for it, if you need serious help, and it has a huge opportunity to help people who can't justify the time and expense of therapy.
Why does emotionally expressive writing help, though? Researchers aren't totally sure, but they've found two elements that are important – the process of making concrete your understanding of your emotions by writing them down, and actually learning from the experience. The first is very well documented, due to how surprising it was – you can instantly incinerate journal entries (or put them on those wipe-away boards with the magnet pens) and people still get a pretty big benefit. So the act of writing helps by itself, ordering your thoughts and feelings into the inherently linear structure of language. But another aspect, found after people put machines to the task of analyzing the content of journal entries, is that inference and understanding the cause and effect of your life contributes massively to success too.
But, of course, that takes scope. When you live something, you have all the information you need – it's intensely, inescapably vivid. You are there. If some small thing makes you frustrated with your partner, you don't need to know more, you need to have the circumspection to understand what caused the whole scenario, including your reaction. You need, to put it simply, time.
And journals let you do that. Of course, very few people actually read their journals. It's sort of a hassle, and it's not clear what you should read or when. If you want to find all the times you spoke about a certain thing, you're going to want a computer to help you in some way.
I've been noodling this for a while. And I think there are a lot of people who would benefit from this a lot, who aren't as practiced at wrangling computers as I am, or at least don't want to take a few weeks to try. I made the journaling tool of choice for people who want to understand their lives. And I hope you enjoy it, and of course, use it.
Instead of your next physical journal, spend the couple bucks on No. 3 Green Pencil. Hopefully, it'll add some color to your life, and leave a heavier mark than the simpler journals you might buy and throw away*.
* that's what the number means, by the by, in case you were curious what the 2 means for a number 2 pencil. And I'll probably add this to the introductory explanation over there, so feel free to jump right in if you've already read this.
Once again: if you're going to spend $7 every three months on a notebook, spend it on a journal that helps you out. No. 3 Green Pencil.