Throughout history, many great leaders and other prominent figures have kept journals – a blessing to biographers. Oscar Wilde, one of history’s more colourful diarists, wrote: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”
Many claims have been made for the benefits of keeping a journal, besides en route entertainment.
- decreases symptoms of asthma, arthritis, and other chronic health conditions
- strengthens immune system
- improves cognitive function
- decreases stress
- clarifies thoughts and feelings
- helps you to get to know yourself better
- helps resolve problems and disagreements by putting things in perspective
- track patterns, trends and growth
From the neuroscientific perspective, keeping a journal works because the left brain is analytical and rational, while the right brain is intuitive and creative. Regardless of whether you are left or right-handed, while the left brain is busy writing, the right hemisphere is left free to roam. I have definitely experienced this myself. While my hand is occupied, I am already thinking ahead to the next sentence, often considering and discarding several options before my hand catches up. To sum up, keeping a journal allows you to use all your brainpower.
I have also found that it makes a big difference whether I type my journal on my laptop (doesn’t work) or write in a paper journal (does work). I am very nearly a paperless person, a habit forced on me by many years of a nomadic lifestyle in which heavy, bulky paper had no role. But my journal is the one thing that I just can’t do electronically. It seems to use a different part of the brain, so I have done some research, and have found a possible explanation. MRI scans show that in children, the neural activity was more mature in those who had recently practiced handwriting. It seems that sequential finger movements, like writing, activate massive areas of the brain involved in thinking and language, and in storing and managing information.
I have been keeping a journal on and off since the age of about 8 – although admittedly some of the early entries were not particularly exciting. Got up, went to school, came home, did homework, etc etc. There was a big gap from age 18 into my 30s, which I now rather regret, but during the emotional turmoil of that my mid-30s I rediscovered the joy of journaling.
Now I have a journaling ritual – not exactly a routine, because my life is too here, there, and everywhere for that – but a way that I like to carve out my journaling as a special time. Ideally, it goes like this:
- find suitable coffee shop, where you won’t get the evil eye from the baristas if you loiter for a couple of hours over one latte
- order latte and possibly a cake – doesn’t matter if you don’t want the cake – this purchase is your rental of a table for the foreseeable future
- take seat, ideally in quiet corner far from eyes of baristas, but anywhere will do
- take out journal and pen, open journal, pick up pen, and start
- incidentally, I am snob when it comes to notebook and pen – for the last 7 or 8 years I’ve been using Paper Blanks notebooks, and a good black ballpoint. I just love the aesthetic feel of a smooth pen on thick paper.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you are going to write when you start. There is no right or wrong way. Some people like to start by posing a question to themselves. It can be anything from the grandiose to the mundane. Who am I? Does God exist? What is the meaning of life? Am I happy? Am I on track? What do I think of religion / politicians / my spouse / my friends / the next door neighbour’s dog?
Some people like to write for a particular audience – themselves, their children, a parent, a hypothetical public, their future biographer (!).
It really doesn’t matter. You can just let the words flow in a stream of consciousness. Or you can use a structured set of questions like these ones from the Presencing Institute. (Sadly, this page seems to have vanished from the online world. If you desperately want to see it, email me via my contact form and I will send you the pdf.) You can include pictures, or diagrams, or mindmaps. This is YOUR journal, and you make up the rules.
I use my journal for different purposes at different times. Sometimes I write about the past, to assimilate, analyse, re-live, or record.
Or I write about the present, to assess and evaluate. How am I feeling? Am I doing the right things for the right reasons?
Or the future – to plan, to wish, even to predict…..
This last is an interesting one. I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. Things that I write in my journal seem to gain a kind of power. If I have a thought about something, the thought has a small amount of power. If I journal about it, it gains more. If I talk about it, it gains more still. You can call this phenomenon whatever you will. Some would call it the Law of Attraction. Personally, I incline more towards neuroplasticity as a plausible explanation. When we have a new idea, a theory, our brain forges a new neural connection. If we then decide that the theory was flawed, or the thought did not serve us well, the connection withers and dies. But if we find value and meaning in it, and ponder on it, and write about it, and talk about it, we are actually physically reinforcing that neural connection – until the notion becomes our new reality. So by writing about our future plans and dreams, we are forging new neural pathways, creating new norms for ourselves.
So even if no other human eyes will ever see your journal, be mindful about what you write. It just might come true!
You may have heard of a study allegedly conducted at Harvard in 1979 in which it was shown that those class members who wrote down their goals were phenomenally more successful than those who did not. Apparently that particular study is an urban myth, but then they re-studied it, and found the end result to be true. Details of the investigation and re-study here.
Huge thanks to my friend Martha Kaufeldt for researching much of the material referenced above.
I am now in the dying days of my time at Yale – just over a month to go until the end of the semester, and the end of the World Fellows Program. It has been an amazing time, and still much to be done in these last precious moments. In the final week of the semester all the World Fellows have to give a TED-type talk. In my talk, I intend to sum up the headlines of what I have learned here, and announce my future direction – at least partially. I’m still working on the “future direction” bit, as this has been a time of intense cognitive overload, in a tremendously fulfilling way. Suffice it to say that there is a Big Idea brewing, and as soon as I am ready to go public, I will.
Sympathy to all those who suffered as a result of Hurricane Sandy, and in the snow that followed in Sandy’s wake. The debate will rage on about connections to climate change. I can’t profess to know what is “normal” in this part of the world, but I can say for sure that there is a LOT of weather going on in New Haven. And that from what I hear from locals, this is not normal. Nor was last year. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.