I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember, keeping diaries, crafting poetry and stories, composing songs, and even making writing the cornerstone of my career. Through the most difficult times writing has been there as a consistent, healing force. But I hadn’t realised just how powerful it could be until I came across the work of Dr James Pennebaker.
That was a couple of years ago. One fine, spring day I found myself scouring the bookshelves at the digital agency where I worked, on a quest for brain food. I’d expected to pick out a marketing handbook. Instead, I came across ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ by Jonathan Haidt. The book, in short, is an analysis of happiness theories through the ages. Perfect. I love this type of book. It was sure to hold some of the answers I’d been searching a lifetime for. Eternal happiness beckoned…
I’ll say now, I learnt many valuable things. But the part that resonated the most (and still does every time I think about it) was James Pennebaker’s expressive writing experiments.
Pennebaker – a social psychologist based at the University of Texas – has been studying the effects of writing on health and wellbeing since the mid 1980s. In his first experiment, research participants were asked to write about their most traumatic life-experience for fifteen minutes a day, over a period of four days. Grammar and spelling weren’t important – participants were writing for themselves, not to be judged on their writing ability – but they were asked to write continuously.
Pennebaker then monitored the participants’ medical records in the months following the exercise. When compared with a control group, those who had taken part in the expressive writing task visited the doctor and used aspirin on a less frequent basis. It appeared that the writing had had a positive effect on the individuals’ physical health, which lasted for months afterwards. Incredible.
Why was this the case? That’s a topic for another blog post. What seems pretty certain is that it wasn’t purely down to cathartic emotional expression. Subsequent studies tested forms of expression such as dancing and singing, but did not achieve such astounding results. ‘You have to use words,’ Haidt summarises, ‘and the words have to help you create a meaningful story.’
And that was it. With that one sentence I had found my calling. Two of my passions – writing and health – had been combined in a perfect partnership. Numerous studies have since backed up Pennebaker’s initial findings. Writing can help to make people physically healthier. And that’s just the beginning. I was hooked.