The Joy of Journaling

I promised you a blog on journaling. And I am a woman of my word. This blog will be a summary of the workshop that I gave during the recent World Fellows retreat at Race Brook Lodge in Massachusetts.

Oscar Wilde

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.

Slightly dubious:
– decreases symptoms of asthma, arthritis, and other chronic health conditions
– strengthens immune system

Definitely:
– 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
– therapeutic

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.

Latte (note: NOT in a disposable cup!)

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!

Other Stuff:

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.

Links:

Daniel Amen on how to journal your way to a better brain

The therapeutic benefits of keeping a journal

How handwriting changes the brain

The benefits of journaling for stress management

 

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.

  • eglise

    Roz…a lovely insight into your journey through Journaling :-)

    One my regrets is that I did not keep a diary of events and thoughts , hopes and fears etc. The discipline would have been therapeutic and assistance with recalling what happened in the past would have been distinctly handy …especially as some of my mental filing system seems to be increasingly sloppy!.

    I would be interested to know whether the emphasis of the content changed dependent on the environments you were in. For example, during your many days at sea, did entries contain more forward looking thoughts , retrospective reflections , more philosophical entries or mainly “get me out of here” pleas!

    David C

  • susie slanina

    Interesting, Roz. I love the thought of you pondering life in coffee shops. It makes me want to start…..having lattes! :) Your friend from Powells in Portland, Susie Slanina

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=646994801 Gina Alzate

    Love your thoughts on power growing with each mention of an idea, especially when sealed through writing and speaking

    So glad to enjoy the joys of friendship with you :)

  • rozsavage

    Haha! Well, you’re in a good city for lattes!!

    I hope to spend some time on the West Coast next spring. Will be sure to give you a shout if I make it up to Portland!

  • Gary Simpson

    As always,,,good to read your thoughts—Gary in So. California

  • Brad in Scappose, OR

    had to comment about your need “to write” rather than type in a journal…have maintained an off again on again journal used usually during stressful moments/processes … nice that I haven’t done any entries for about a year now…

    But had to comment “using the pen” … I have often found when laboring over these stressful moments, my pen and its words often take on a “life of their own” — a precognitive/intuitive life…more times than not I have been amazed at the words that flowed from my pen ahead of my cognitive words…

    Sounds like you also have discovered the “power of the pen” when journaling…thank for sharing…

  • Bruce

    Hi Roz, your comments about protracted coffee-shop stays reminded me of my days of college. Very funny. Most places don’t care if you stay around, and those that do–avoid.

    Onward.

    Bruce

  • rozsavage

    My policy exactly! :-)

  • Bruce

    Hi Roz,

    Please allow me to wax philosophical.

    I once kept a journal. I would scrutinize my thoughts and feelings under the microscope. Read it and reread it. In time I became too introspective. I felt like I was looking too much inward, and it was sort of depressing me. I’m actually not as interesting as I thought I was. The WORLD is interesting, other people, places, and things to do. I’m boring! (I can’t say the same for you.)

    Life is a river. Go with the flow, embrace the whitewater, enjoy the placid moments. But most of all, keep moving where nature compels you to move. Don’t hold firmly, or the grains of sand will feel rough. Relax the grip and time slips smoothly by. (I’m still working on this last part.)

    Ironically, my writing these missives is a sort of journaling in itself.

    Always a grateful fan.

    Bruce

  • rozsavage

    Haha! Appreciate the paradox in that.

    I know what you mean. I have spent more time alone with myself than most other people. It can be hard work – and yes, depressing. I feel it was worthwhile, but I don’t say it’s for everybody. My mother can’t quite figure out how I can be so introspective.
    Introspection is for some, not others. Constant change is for some, not others. We all have different approaches, but hopefully we all have similar fundamental values – love, happiness, relationships, relevance.

  • UncaDoug

    Roz, I keep notes as I travel on my phone, one page per day. I use it to plan my day and then to keep track of where I was, what I saw, things I thought, haiku, landmarks, progress, mileage and times. In fact, wondering where in the world I was when this blog was posted, I quickly discovered that I was crossing the summit of the Sierra Nevada on freshly plowed ice, having just purchased new chains for my year-old Honda hybrid … the day was an adventure as I headed back to the SF Bay Area in time to be with Bill McKibben and his 350.org team. And guess what! A photo of me appeared surprisingly on the screen! Not very introspective, but what is my virtual external hard drive for my brain.

    In the first (right) photo below, I am “locked in” to a skidder which is used to drag clear-cut trees away, to make a clean path for the Keystone XL pipeline. RC and I are locked together through the tracks, and Gary is “locked in” to another piece of heavy equipment. Sam and Ramsey are support and liaison for communication with the sheriff and construction management. All five of us spent 48+ hours in jail. We just learned this morning that charges have been rejected by the Court.

    Log, Roz! Log!

  • rozsavage

    Hi David – I’m afraid to say that I can’t keep a journal while at sea. It is just too difficult and too uncomfortable to write in my cramped cabin. My writings are confined to my logbook – a one-liner at the end of each shift. Often containing swear-words!
    And, of course, my blogs.

    But no journaling of my usual standard. That requires a comfortable coffee shop and a latte!