Writing for Happiness

So you want to be happier? Here’s your get-started guide on how writing can help.

There are a million ways to go about improving our lives. Some people rely on a life coach. Many of us read self-development books and subscribe to endless blogs on the topic. We use trial and error to make both big and small changes. Sometimes we see improvements; sometimes we’re left feeling deflated.

“Human beings are works
in progress that mistakenly
think they’re finished.”
– Daniel Gilbert –

It’s worth remembering in all this that our happiness is always a work in progress. And where does writing come in? Writing is both a way of acknowledging this work in progress, and helping us troubleshoot ways that we might be holding ourselves back or repeating old mistakes. Moreover, writing is also a way to celebrate & savour our triumphs and our joys, yet this is often overlooked in traditional ‘therapeutic writing’ (hence my slant of writing for happiness.)

I’ve created this guide not to be exhaustive or to tell you how best to write, but to give you some help getting off the ground if you’ve never written, haven’t for a while, or find yourself in a bit of a rut.

There probably could have been ten steps rather than three but simplicity is king, and I think these three are a great way to begin. So without further ado, enjoy!

The 3-step get started guide:

1. Write for Self-Knowledge
2. Be Open
3. Write When Things Go Right

Before We start

Grab a pen and crisp fresh journal or favourite shabby notebook (often my favoured approach, less pressure!) A few loose sheets of paper will also work. You can write electronically if you really must, but pen on paper is always far more powerful in my opinion. Cup of tea optional (but eagerly advised. Tea makes everything more fun.)

1. Write for self-knowledge

In all of our efforts to be happier, many of us forget one vital ingredient to being (& staying) happier: self-knowledge. Yet I believe that self-knowledge is essential to happiness. Why? Because even saying “I’m happy” or “I’m not happy” relies on some self-knowledge to be either true or false. Do you see? Happiness itself is a form of self-knowledge. And yet so often this vital ingredient is left out of self-help, coaching, or positive psychology discourses.

Whilst it remains in debate how much self-knowledge we can ever truly have, and also how desirable it is to have it (if it highlights uncomfortable facts about the self which we’d rather ignore, for example) I believe that it is a worthwhile endeavour if we really want to be happier – and mean it.

Try it Tip #1

Start a fresh page in your journal and title it: what I know. Then free-write for 5 to 10 minutes on what you know about yourself, e.g. “I’m a fighter” or “I’m generous.” Start another fresh page and title it: what I’m learning. Then do another short free-write, allowing your inner voice to tell you all the things you’ve still to learn about yourself & the world, e.g. “I’m learning how to be kinder to myself” or “I’m learning what it means to love others selflessly.”

Let these pages be both a primer & a reminder to be both honest and compassionate with yourself when writing; an admission that you are an eternal work in progress, and that’s okay.

2. Be Open

Opening up is one of the key ways that writing helps us. Whilst there is yet to be one reigning theory as to why writing can make us feel both emotionally and physically better, letting go of inhibition is probably the most cited.

“Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start here.”
– Cheryl Strayed –

It’s hard to be completely honest with ourselves and perhaps not always best-advised, if we’re really close to a trauma or struggling to come to terms with something. But, when it feels right, this is one of the number one ways that writing can make us happier.

Try it Tip #2

Writing expressively is a way of both exploring our deepest thoughts and feelings about difficult events, and unburdening ourselves of them. If there is an event from your past, the facts of which you are finding it hard to cope with (a break up, job loss, or bereavement) take 20 quiet minutes to write, compassionately and non-judgmentally, about how it makes you feel. Give yourself permission to tear up the pages afterwards, so that you can be truly candid. Important: if it is a very recent trauma, proceed with caution or write alongside a counselor or trusted friend. Writing about trauma can set in motion profound reflections that, whilst often helpful, can also be painful and upsetting.

If you try this over three days, you’ll have completed the standard ‘expressive writing’ paradigm within psychology, shown to promote myriad physical and emotional health benefits. But opening up comes in many forms, and it is not always just about the tough stuff, which brings me to Step 3…

 3. Write When Things Go Right

In my writing life, this has become my motto. Why? Well, for years I enshrined my woe and misery in the pages of my journal, only to realise it felt like a slap in the face every time I opened it and was met with a timeline of my troubles. Once I started to study positive psychology, and learned the value of accentuating what’s best about life, I thought: why not in my journal too?

“Choose what you pay attention to… choose how you construct meaning from experience.”
– David Foster Wallace –

To be clear, I don’t mean to say only write when things go right – getting the tricky stuff out is essential as we’ve seen in Step 2, but it is not the whole picture. It can be a habit to focus on the tough stuff, in fact we’ve evolved with a negativity bias. Yet our positive emotions have an equal, if not greater evolutionary value, and when our journal becomes a place to build these too, it stops being only a place to feel better and starts being a place to feel great.

Try it Tip #3

Next time you’re having one of ‘those’ days – no, not that kind of day when everything seems to crumble around you, but the other kind: where everything seems to be sprouting beautifully anew & fit-to-burst with potential – write about it. Write your wonder and your wild-optimism. Write what you’re grateful for and what you treasure. Write to remember all the times when the world did you a favour, even though it didn’t have to; from the simple kindness of a stranger to meeting the love of your life.

In writing we get to choose what we pay attention to, as Wallace notes in the quote above. Pay attention to the best parts of your life by recording them in your journal.

That’s the end of this quick get-started guide.

If you liked it, share it. Want more tips on writing to be happier? Read about my ‘WRITE’ model for writing to be happier.