Write your way to a happier life

I recently wrote a post about the downfalls about visualizing what you want in life as a means to getting it. The problem with this is at it’s best it is ineffective, and at it’s worse it can be harmful (Wiseman, 2009). It can be harmful in the sense that one can get stuck fantasizing about what they want and fail to set proper goals and strategies about how to face the setbacks and challenges they may face on the road to success.

This post will look at the difference between sharing an emotionally upsetting experience with an untrained listener versus simply writing about the experience.

“A problem shared is a problem halved”

Most people have probably heard this expression at one point or another, but have probably not put too much thought into it’s validity. Now, as someone who is pursuing a career in counseling, I clearly believe in talking with a trained therapist, as they have both experiential and therapeutic knowledge to guide one to find a solution to their problem. However, in the case of sharing one’s feelings with an untrained listener, a recent study found no difference in outcome between people who shared an emotionally distressing experience with those who simply talked about what they do on a typical day (Zech & Rime, 2005).

There is still hope in the idea of expressing one’s feelings about a distressing or negative life experience.

In 1994, Spera, Buhrfeind & Pennebaker conducted a study which had participants who had recently been laid off write about their thoughts and feelings about losing their job. Although this only took a few minutes a day, the study found a significant improvement in the participants physical and psychological well-being which constituted a decrease in health problems, as well as an increase in happiness and self-esteem.

Why is expressing yourself with a pen and paper so much more effective than talking about your experience?

The problem with talking to an untrained listener is that your thoughts on your upsetting experience will often come out in a very unstructured and convoluted manner. By expressing your feelings about one’s negative experience through writing, it forces one to follow the structure of a storyline which often leads the person to discovering a solution to their problem. Even if one does not find a solution, it will at least help them articulate their experience if they discuss the event with a therapist.

So grab a pen and paper and write your way to a happier and healthier life.

Write your way to happiness. Photo by Thomas Martinsen.


Spera, S., Buhrfeind, E., & Pennebaker, J.W. (1994). Expressive writing and coping with job loss. Academy of Management Journal, 3, 722–733.

Wiseman, R. (2009). 59 seconds: Think a little, change a lot. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Zech, E., & Rime, B. (2005). Is talking about an emotional experience helpful? Effects on emotional recovery and perceived benefits. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 12, 270–287.

Originally published at wildestlife.com on March 15, 2015.

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