Writing about emotionally upsetting events has been shown to produce salubrious effects, including reduced health problems, enhanced self-regulation, and better adjustment after a trauma. Emotional catharsis (i.e., expressing pent-up emotions) was first suggested as a crucial factor in the health benefits of disclosive writing, however later studies indicate that the writing style is what most strongly promotes its health benefits.
Particularly, putting together a sensible story with increased use of insight words, causal words and words associated with cognitive activity is more associated with subsequent health benefits than merely using emotional expressions. Furthermore, even writing about another person’s trauma confers similar health benefits, which suggests that self-regulation might be a key player in this association.
Notably, writing about “a” trauma, whether real or imagined, promotes increased affective regulation, which in turn enhances physical health. In simpler terms, emotional writing helps convince the individual that they are capable of handling and coping from emotionally intense challenges.
Extending this research, the authors of the current paper seek to investigate whether the same health benefits can be obtained from writing about non-traumatic events, specifically writing about one’s life goals. Writing under this context implicates reorganizing one’s priorities, clarifying one’s goals, and deciding on values, which are all cognitive-related actions; at the same time it could help recognize and resolve past conflicts.
Results from this investigation lend support to the claim that writing about one’s life goals could yield potential health benefits. Notably, the authors found that disclosive writing is associated with less upset and more positive feelings, and with getting sick less often. Furthermore, there is also evidence of psychological benefits as suggested by the small increase in subjective well-being among the study participants. Those results are in par with those obtained during writing about trauma, suggesting similar action in affect regulation.
It is interesting to note that writing sessions combining topics of past trauma and positive aspects of the trauma did not yield similar results. The authors suggest that switching between the two topics might have interrupted the participants’ flow of self-disclosure, and in addition the writing task could have felt contrived rather than spontaneous.
In conclusion, it is writing about our deepest thoughts and feelings that is key to the benefits of writing regardless of the topic.
King LA. The Health Benefits of Writing about Life Goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2001;27(7):798-807. doi:10.1177/0146167201277003
Practice “writing for well-being”
Sample instructions for writing about best possible self (i.e., one’s life goals):
Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams.
Now, using the samples below as reference, write about “best possible self”
I guess …I want a pretty normal middle class life. I want just a medium-size house—no mansions even if I could afford it. . . . My main goal is to keep experiencing as much as I can even when it seems there isn’t anything else, there always is. Really, I just want a good marriage, where we are both confident together and compliment each other’s personalities. Once we are happy together we could be happy in lots of different situations—even if it means some sacrifice. My ideal would be for us both to love, or at least be proud of, our jobs, but also always strive for more.
I have learned to love as fully and selflessly as possible. I have learned to be humble without losing and confidence, esteem, or being fake. I have touched the life of at least one other soul in a significant way and helped them learn to love more greatly. If I have achieved this then I know that I have also achieved happiness, peace, and worldly success. By this last I refer to career accomplishment, and enough material wealth to keep me satisfied. . . . I have learned to relinquish all fear.
I hope my life allows me to travel. I have this passion to spend extended amounts of time in countries that are drastically different from my own. I’d love to visit India, China, Israel, Nepal, Africa again. So, somehow…Iwant to travel. I also envision being the associate pastor of a moderately sized church in Arizona working with adult education programming and cross-cultural awareness. Hopefully somewhere along the line I will find someone that I want to commit to sharing my life with. I would like to have 3 children. I really wouldn’t mind living in another country! I certainly don’t want to be in the military, but I’d love to do medical missions in third world countries or something like that. I also would like to teach Religion courses at the college level someday, or maybe even at graduate school! Maybe I could be a religious archeologist! Then I could travel and learn amazing things all at the same time! Life is just full of possibilities. See, there is all this stuff I want to do with part of my life, but I also really do desire a home and family