Finding Happiness through Written Expression
Two important things help us achieve our goals: letting go of past mistakes and envisioning future success. Psychology research supports that expressive writing about one’s goals has numerous benefits for health, emotional adjustment, and well-being (Smyth, 1998), while also increasing the likelihood that the goals will be achieved. How does expressive writing help people overcome emotional baggage and take hold of a more empowering future?
First, the creative writing process helps us organize our thoughts in new ways. We begin to create new narratives for our pasts and our futures. Taking ownership of our stories makes us feel more in control; this, in turn, boosts our resiliency, motivation, and self-esteem.
Second, writing about our “most cherished” selves helps us illustrate our values and priorities and gain insights about how we can use these qualities in future endeavors. We begin to feel less conflicted about our goals as we gain a better understanding of our true motivations and feelings (King, 2001; Pennebaker, 1998).
Finally, imagining future success can boost psychological well-being and improve performance toward achieving the goal (King, 2001; Pham & Taylor, 1999).
Psychologist Laura King studies two specific types of beneficial, expressive writing assignments: “best possible selves” and “lost possible selves”:
Lost Possible Selves: Write for 20 minutes at a time about different experiences and topics for 3 days in a row. Here are your specific instructions: “Think about a goal in your life that was once very important to you; but, due to life circumstances, you can no longer achieve this goal. If only you had been able to achieve this goal of your past, what would your life have looked like? Now, write about what you imagined.”
Why write about regrets? Writing about past mistakes and goals that no longer make sense for our lives can help us come to terms with them and replace regret with resolve.
Best Possible Selves: Write for 20 minutes at a time about different experiences and topics for 3 days in a row. Here are your specific instructions: “Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.”
Don’t stress over the amount of time or number of days you write. The most important thing is to have fun and get your feelings into words; then, reflect on your writing and then put it away. It might be fun to re-visit in a year to see how your feelings and perspectives have changed.
- King, L. A. (2007). The Science of Psychology: An Appreciative View. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
- King, L. (2001). The Health Benefits of Writing about Life Goals, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27 (7), 798 – 807.
- King, L. (2004). Lost and Found Possible Selves, Subjective Well-Being, and Ego Development in Divorced Women. Journal of Personality, 72 (3), 603-632.
- King, L.A., Hicks, J.A. (2007) Whatever happened to “What might have been”? Regrets, happiness, and maturity. American Psychologist 62(7), 625-636.
- Pennebaker, J.W., et al (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 2, 239-245.
- Pham, L.B. & Taylor, S.E. (1999). From Thought to Action: Effects of Process-Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance . Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(2), 250-260
- Smith, J.M. (1998). Written Emotional Expression: Effect Sizes, Outcome Types, and Moderating Variables. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66 (1), 174-184