Thursday, February 25, 2010

Write2Transform: This Works!

I have big news for you all: this journaling stuff really works. 

Yeah, I know I've only been journaling for nine days. Still, I've experienced some shifts in my life. When I started this adventure, I was down with a stomach virus. On Monday, after five days of gratitude journaling, I woke up with the sniffles and the all-too-familiar twinge of anxiety in my stomach. Yikes.

Since then, I've been practicing the write2delight exercises. Each day, I've used multi-colored pens to record the activities, people, and places that delight me! After I make my list, I write about how I might do more of the stuff I love each day. 

After four days of write2delight, I feel better physically and emotionally. My sniffles have disappeared. I still have a to-do list that would crush an Olympic weightlifter, but I don't feel as daunted by it. And a few of the things on my list have showed up in my life. (Yeah, I know this sounds kind of woo-woo. So be it.) I was asked to write an article about the Dream Keepers, my writing group for tweens and teens. I received an invitation take a class on teaching writing and art—on fellowship! A work assignment gave me the opportunity to write about another topic that interests me. Wow!

In the book Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill said, "Reduce your plan to writing. The moment you complete this, you will have definitely given concrete form to the intangible desire." Every time I have put one of my project ideas into writing, opportunities have shown up like metals to magnet. I cannot explain it. I can't prove it. But it works. The write2delight assignment reminded me of this. For that reason, I'll probably keep writing about my delicious plans, even as I take on the next writing intervention.

Research by psychologist James Pennebaker has shown that people who used writing to make sense of their traumatic life experiences had the long-lasting effect of feeling happier and less anxious. Here's what happened. Pennebaker asked his subjects to write for fifteen 
minutes a day on four consecutive days. Half of the group members wrote about a difficult or traumatic event in their lives. The other half of the group, the control group, was asked to write about their day or to 
describe their living environment. A year later, he examined the subject's medical records. The people who wrote about their difficult experiences were healthier than the others. What made the difference? According to Pennebaker, it was the meaning-making that mattered. The people who showed increased insight into their difficult situation during the four days stayed healthier than those who simply wrote about their feelings or the color of their carpet.

In a study conducted with asthma patients at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, School of Medicine, study participants wrote about their most stressful experiences. The control group wrote about their daily activities. According to the book Asthma Free in 21 Days, 47 percent of the patients who wrote about their challenging life experiences showed improvement in lung function that could not be attributed to medication or other factors. 24 percent of the control group showed improvement as well. (See Shafer and Greenfield, Asthma Free in 21 Days, p. 139) Notice this: both groups improved their lung function through writing.

Okay, so here's the challenge. For the next four days, write for twenty minutes each day about a difficult event in your life. In your writing, try to make meaning out of the experience. Ask yourself:
  • What personal strengths did I use to cope with and overcome this challenge?
  • What did I learn about myself?
  • Who helped me and supported me in the midst of this experience?
  • What random acts of kindness did I experience during this time?
  • What good things have come out of this experience?
  • What parts of my experience have helped me support or understand others?
  • In what ways has this experience enriched my life?
  • In what ways has this event deepened my understanding of life and other people?
One warning before you begin: Pennebaker found that participants felt worse IMMEDIATELY after writing about a difficult past event. But, these feelings did dissipate and, in the long term, the participants who did the therapeutic writing were healthier, better able to function in daily life, and has a better sense of personal well-being. My advice: plan to engage in one of your delicious daily delights after you've finished the daily journaling. Take a walk, call a friend, listen to music—anything that brightens your day.

And, as always, if you have journaling ideas to share or exciting improvements to report, the comment box is always open!

Monday, February 22, 2010


I woke up this morning with that all-too-familiar Monday morning angst. I'm not worried about my week, but my gut was in a panic. Before I even got out of bed, I was making to-do lists in my head: editing, writing, speaking, blogging, AHHH! Then my brain attacked me with a long list of should-have-dones and if onlys: I should have started on the editing this weekend, I should have written my presentation, if only I didn't have jury duty next week. Finally, the worry hit: would I be able to do it all? Out with the gratitude and in with the bad attitude.

Day six of the great write2transform journaling challenge, and I am anxious? This isn't how it's supposed to be! I'm supposed to be feeling happy and well. And the thing is: I do. Well, mostly I do—except for that little bout of Monday morning angst.

Maybe my angst came from anticipating the next journaling exercise: write2overcome. Much of the research on journaling has examined how journaling about difficult past events can make us healthier. I spent some time this weekend reviewing the studies and jotting down ideas for journaling about the past. But the idea of starting out Monday morning by revisiting the icky parts of my life? Well, no thanks.

So we'll get to the past later. This morning I saw a report that positive emotions protect against heart disease. We know that positive emotions can also increase our resilience, helping us to rebound from difficult experiences. In her book, Positivity, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson suggests we aim for a 3-to-1 ratio—three positive emotions for every one negative emotion. 

Let's try that with journaling. For today and the next few days, the assignment is simple: write2deight. I envision a few different ways to do this exercise in your journal. As you think of others, please make a note of them in the comments section below. We can learn from each other's experiences. 

1. Collecting Joy. Throughout the day, collect images and encounters that bring you joy. When it's time to journal, write them down in as much detail as possible! None of these encounters have to be Hollywood moments. They can be tiny moments that delight you—seeing a robin, waving at a baby, or talking to a good friend. 

2. Recalling Delight. What delights you? What activities do you really enjoy doing? Dr. Robin Smith suggests creating a 'What I Enjoy' List. She says, 
"This list should include everything that brings you pleasure and passion in life. If you aren't sure what brings you joy right now, think back to what used to bring you joy. This may require some exploration, but what did you do when you were a little kid that brought a smile on your face? Did you used to go horseback riding? Walk outside in a garden? Whatever it may be, write it down. This list doesn't mean that you have to do them every day. It's just to make you aware that there are things in the world that do make you feel alive. If you are able to do something you enjoy at least once a week, do it and help yourself feel alive in that moment."

3. Picturing Happiness. When you cannot find one thing in your day that brings a smile, dig out a magazine. Page through it until you see a photo that makes you smile. Cut it out, paste it in your journal, and write a few sentences about why it brings you joy. 

Wow. I feel happier already, just imagining doing these exercises. Go forth, brave friends, and write2delight. Then stop back and let me know how it goes!

Friday, February 19, 2010


I've spent the last four days sleeping, reading John Sandford novels, and watching HGTV. While I appreciated the rest, I'm delighted to be up and eating and ready to talk words! 

A few of you have asked for more details about the write2transform project. First, why Lent? I spent the first part of my working life as a parish minister. Though my primary work is outside of the church, the rhythms of the church year have stuck with me. Lent is a good time to take on a practice that has the power to transform our lives. But worry not: you can do the write2transform challenge anytime you want. AND, you can write about anything you want. Do your own thing or follow along with the blog. I'll be suggesting journaling exercises based on studies from positive psychology. I'll also be recommending books and other tools.

Second, what kind of a journal? Use what you like to write on. I mostly use a Moleskine journal (link below). When I want to do collage or art journaling, I dig out my 8 1/2 x 11" sketchbook. Use what works for you.

Finally, when I decided to do the write2transform project, I set some rules for myself. They might be helpful for you, too.
*I'm planning to journal only 10-20 minutes a day. I want to see if a doable amount of journaling will improve my health and mood!
*I have a set time each day to journal. You've heard me say it before: we get more done when we know the when and where of a task. If you decide to do the journaling challenge, figure out when and where you will write.
*I hope to try a new intervention every four days or so. I will be blogging about the practice when I begin, so that I can give you some tips and tools for your own journaling. Four days later, I'll blog about how it went and introduce a new tool.

The first intervention I am trying is writing2thank or gratitude journaling. I've been reading the book, Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert A. Emmons. Professor Emmons and his colleague Professor Mike McCullough have conducted many gratitude studies. The first looked at the effects of gratitude journaling. All of the participants kept a journal and were asked to write a sentence a week for ten weeks. The first group described five things they were grateful for. The second group described five hassles. The neutral group simply listed five things that had affected them in the past week. After ten weeks, the gratitude group was 25% happier than the other participants. In addition, the gratitude group:
*felt better about their lives
*were more optimistic about the future
*reported fewer health complaints
*spent more time exercising (1.5 hours more per week)
(Emmons, p. 30)


So how does this gratitude journaling work? Every day, list three to five things you are grateful for. Emmons advises readers to keep it fresh. Don't list the same things every single day. Consider how you are thankful for the difficult experiences in your life, either those you face right now or the ones you have overcome. Use your senses to expand your list of the things you are grateful for—what do you touch, taste, smell, hear, or see that fills you with gratitude? Mentally walk through your day and thank all the people who supported you, from the bus driver who got you safely to work to the sandwich shop worker who prepared your lunch.

After you have done the basic step, challenge yourself to consider why of each blessing. We spend a good deal of time complaining about the difficult things in our lives. We ask, "Why me?" about so much of our lives: why did I get sick, why didn't I get the promotion, why did he break up with me, or why did that car cut me off? But we rarely ask why about the good things. Take a few moments at the end of your journaling session to write about why each of the blessings on your list came your way today.

So that's it. I'll be back in a couple of days with another assignment. In the meantime, write, write, write!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I've needed a big old life-transforming project for awhile now. Especially today! For the last few days I've been sidelined by a nasty stomach virus. Eeek. Right now, I'm a bit of a couch potato. But here's my life-transforming plan: For the next 40 days, I will try many of the major journaling interventions studied by psychologists. I’ll be blogging about the tools as well as offering tips and resources so that you can journal with me. I will also report on my progress, letting you know if journaling daily transforms my life.

Here's what the research says journaling is supposed to do:
*Improve memory and sleep
*Boost immune cell activity
*Speed healing after surgery
*Increase general feelings of well being
* Support you in achieving your goals
*Increase longevity

I'm starting with writing2thank. I'll let you know how it goes in a few days. But right now, I'm going back to bed, thankful for indoor plumbing, heat, and a good book!