I recently met with Dr. James Pennebaker at the University of Texas – Austin and there are bits of that conversation that have continued to resonate in my head, almost like a good tune. I’ll do a complete post on Dr. Pennebaker with his wonderful stories soon, but here’s the part I keep thinking about. The most innovative and exciting finding from his work — at least for me — is the incredible impact that writing reflectively can have on a person’s health. There’s a lot more about this in Dr. Pennebaker’s books (available for purchase now!), but in a set of experiments in which people wrote about an intense, traumatic event from their lives for about 20-minutes a day on four consecutive days they experienced long-term health benefits. In one early example, students who reflectively wrote about these events were found to be healthier; they had fewer hospital visits and better overall physical health stability over the subsequent months. Four days, barely an hour-and-a-half of writing in total = a few months of benefit.
(Featured image above is the mural outside the very moving and beautiful curated Mexic-Arte museum, Austin)
People who wrote the same amount of time but on more casual topics, e.g., non-traumatic events from their lives, did not have this benefit. A person had to reach deep and face real and likely painful memories in their writing to gain this effect. And, as ever with psychological studies, this finding represents a general trend. Not every single person had a benefit. Having written about something traumatic was not a prophylactic against accidents and health threats of all kinds. Rather, this modest bit of reflective, deeply personal writing functioned more subtly to raise one’s fortitude and vitality. The thing of it is when it comes to the world of health, and our various interventions from inoculations against the flu to drug treatments, subtle movements of health indicators in the right direction are a very big deal. And so, it seems, can be this kind of writing. In any case, over the years the subtle health improvements gained by writing about traumas was replicated across multiple studies and with multiple groups of people (in students during that stressful first year of college, among more mature adults in a cohort of people who were recently laid off, etc) — it’s a solid finding.
(Austin loves to embrace its “weird” and one would need to visit this huge, multi-room cos-play shop to understand that fully)
I think this all resonated with me so deeply because of the nature of the project to which I have committed during this past year. My reality of this past year has been going out and doing all sorts of things and then writing. My writing hasn’t been the kind of trauma-filled, raw emotional confrontation that would seem to be necessary for the greatest health benefit, but it has forced me to think in a certain way. Every time I write I have to organize my thoughts. I have to process interactions I’ve had with people over the recent days and weeks. I try to put our encounters and the events that surround them in context for the place in the world, the expectations of that particular community, and the task constraints. The writing forced me to impose a structure that, in effect, changed my relationship to an event. Engaging in this activity over the past year has been rather in stark contrast to much of my adult life. Whatever the events of my day, I have tended move through them with a constant focus on being in the current moment and anticipating the challenge that lay ahead. Most days, most of the time, I have not kept a diary or journal. I have not written and used that writing to understand and process events. Only this year and with this project has writing become such a central part of my regular activities. This year I do and then I write. Most years I do and then I move on. I never thought about the differences that this writing-intensiveness might have for my life. Of course, one might jest, how would I have thought to do so — I never took the time to write about it and work that out!
(I found a little space to write at Flitch coffee, a Silver Stream trailer among a city of many, many food trucks)
I wrote a post — what now seems like ages ago (although was only a few months prior) — about finding stillness while in transit. The journey had begun to take shape and we were starting to rush to places. When would I find the time to prep fully and appropriately, when would I rush out my next post trying to express the experience of this journey or about the life of someone deeply respected, richly lauded, and meaningfully impactful in psychology? The moments that I set myself to write and to reflect through the recent experiences became almost meditative. There were deadlines, there was packing and unpacking, meals, helping my son in school, and driving. So many miles of road to cover.
(A nice welcome from one of the many residents of Mayfield park)
Preserving those moments of space and time to write, had an impact that was palpable! The writing was transformative with the capacity to produce some immediate perspective on the experiences in which I engaged. I am the protagonist of my own life but, as the writer, I am also the audience. Importantly, in applying such a change in my perspective change even when things were seemingly pressurized and intense, I was calm. Going through this exercise so regularly then delving so deeply into Pennebaker’s research felt like an epiphany! I know — I was slow to this in a world where people write their daily lives all the time both in personal journals and posted to social media (“Hello world, welcome to my inner thoughts!”) Writing creates an opportunity to meaningfully embrace and then transform one’s relationship to the impactful moments of one’s life. It feels obvious in retrospect (and for all of you already regularly writing), but reflective writing simply wasn’t a part of my repertoire, much less activities, prior to this year.
(More Mayfield park residents coming to say “hello”)
So here’s the question that has emerged from all this and now seems to be rattling through that meatbox taking up space between my ears. Given the capacity of writing reflectively and deeply to improve health and self-awareness, how do I bring that back to my university? This coming year I will be taking on a little more leadership in support of my institution, and, in doing so, will have greater efficacy in shaping our practices. Could implementing something as simple as a writing exercise into our first year seminars help our students? Could a writing implementation be used to help our faculty with their stresses and create a forum to better direct our decision-making? The possibilities seem to be there, I just need to determine with my colleagues the beta test. If you determined that writing reflectively 3 days a week, once a month, for 15-20 minutes each of those days, could improve your mental and physical health, why wouldn’t you do it?
(Part antique store, part curio shop, and part mid-blowing collection of artifacts at Uncommon Objects)