This is an excerpt from my latest book Dear Hannah: 70 Methods I Used and Abused to Change Who I Am.

Why I Gave up Diaries

Date: December 22, 2000
Age: 18
Location: San Diego, CA
Subject: The Negativity Bias of Diaries

Hi Hannah,

It’s surreal coming back home for the first time as a college student. I hadn’t realized how much my privacy is gone in the dorms until now. You don’t even have time to think there. I had a brief moment of reflection walking back from class the other day. The sun was shining bright off of the light-peach paint on Florence Moore Hall, and my mind wandered to thoughts about my mounting linguistics homework. But just then, I caught a glimpse of blond hair in one of the dorm windows, which was framed by bottles of shampoo and conditioner. This quickly sent my mind adrift. Then as I entered my dorm in Gavilan, one of my neighbors walked out in her pajamas and asked, “How are you?”

Without thinking, I replied, “I need some ‘me time.’” She replied, “Me too,” and walked off. As I made it back to my dorm room, I thought, “That’s odd, I’ve never heard myself use the phrase ‘me time’ before.” I then pulled out my notepad and flipped through some of my entries. I saw that I had drawn evil faces of some of my dorm-mates along with vague but clearly unflattering words. For example, I wrote “Why??????” in a jagged font over the head of someone who lives a few doors down from me.

I flipped to a blank page. But before I could get a scribble down, I heard my roommate Justin lumbering down the hallway. He’s a tall, muscular man with a bass-y voice that’s hard to miss. I shoved my notepad underneath some books in a lower drawer, a little embarrassed about its contents.

For someone who is into reading and writing as much as you are, I’m surprised you don’t keep a journal. Is it because you already see the dangers like I’m starting to?

My uncle drove down from L.A. for an early Christmas party, and we randomly got into a debate about bias in journalism. I made the case that journalism has a negativity bias, since anything that appears in the news is by definition noteworthy, and, generally, the most noteworthy things are negative. A plane crash, for example, is newsworthy, whereas the headline “No plane crashes in the past six months” won’t sell any newspapers. He disagreed strongly, defending newspapers by saying that the medium itself isn’t inherently negative. He said that if the news appears negative, it’s because the writers choose negative content. We kept going back and forth, and to an outside observer, it looked like we were arguing — and arguing over nothing.

When we finished, I wondered why the conversation had become so intense. What I realized was that I was actually talking about my diary. Is it possible that diaries have a negativity bias as well? I’ve always suspected that instead of alleviating my anxieties, writing down my thoughts has actually been enhancing them.

For example, I have a page where I wrote down in block letters “EMOTIONAL DEPENDENCY” and drew circles around it, like some psycho. I remember after I did this, I wandered down the hall and talked to some dorm-mates. But instead of just going with the flow, I kept testing how emotionally dependent I was. I kept repeatedly urging myself to not care what people thought about me, but it had the opposite effect, making me more emotionally sensitive. I then had to retreat, stressed out by the struggle in my head.

Journal page that shows in big letters YOU ARE ARROGANT, along with a visual representation of how slow my progress had been during the summer.

So I think I’m going to box up the notepads that I’ve been keeping for the past three years and store them at home. You never know, maybe by draining the amount of introspective time I have, dorm-life will keep me free from social echo.

- Phil

After I put these notepads away, I started creating mountains of text in files on my computer — for the extra privacy and all. Even though I was always aware in the back of my mind that these diaries were the equivalent of me dwelling on my issues, I just couldn’t put them away.


This is an excerpt from my latest book Dear Hannah: 70 Methods I Used and Abused to Change Who I Am.

Before Philip wrote his first line of code, he tried to re-program his mind. For his 14th birthday, Hannah gave him Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which kicked off a life-long obsession with self-improvement. Follow Philip over 82 letters as he re-tells his journey from winning ThinkQuest, to quitting Stanford, to dealing with dating, happiness, and direction, to eventually making it as an indie iOS app developer. Dear Hannah is either a cautionary tale about self-improvement, or it is a filter for the 10% of self-help that may actually change your life.

PHILIP DHINGRA is a President’s Scholar from Stanford University, where he received his B.A. in Mathematical and Computational Sciences. In addition to authoring books on life change, he develops best-selling iOS apps including Nebulous Notes and The Creative Whack Pack (a collaboration with creativity pioneer Roger von Oech). Philip divides his time between Austin, Texas, and San Francisco, California.