THE DETAILS: Researchers at the University of Missouri in Columbia asked 38 psychology students to write for 20 minutes a day for three consecutive days either about a personal, very positive life experience or an unemotional topic (such as “describe the shoes you are wearing today”). Before and after each writing session, the participants completed a brief questionnaire designed to determine their mood at the time and, immediately after the final writing session, they were given a task designed to assess their global mindset. Four to six weeks after the last writing session, they then completed a questionnaire to determine their physical health.
What the researchers found was positive writing led to a broadened mindset and fewer health complaints. “It may be the case,” they write, “that the process of writing about positive experiences from one’s own life sets up a platform from which to explore all emotions, including negative ones.” Because the health of the participants who did so did improve, the researchers speculate that the benefits weren’t strictly dependent on a more positive mood, they were a result of perspective, as well.
WHAT IT MEANS: Writing about positive experiences makes your outlook more positive—and, as a result, improves your annual checkup. “When people write about positive feelings, they may be moved to feel grateful for the experiences that stimulated those feelings, and optimistic about the possibility of having more positive experiences in the future,” says Rodale.com advisor and clinical psychologist Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts. “Studies have shown that people who are optimistic and take time to feel grateful have stronger immune systems and stay healthier than those who don’t consistently experience optimism and gratitude.”
While the mechanisms behind this phenomenon aren’t fully understood, Rossman muses that feelings of optimism and gratitude may directly affect the immune system biochemically, via connections between the brain and immune cells. Plus, people who are more optimistic and grateful may be less vulnerable to the effects of stress, which would also help to keep them healthier, he says. Finally, people who are more optimistic and grateful tend to engage in more health-enhancing behaviors such as balanced nutrition, regular exercise, and adequate sleep.
Here’s how you, too, can take a page from this study and write yourself well:
• Write regularly. Studies have shown benefits from writing daily, as in this study, and also from writing weekly. “Some researchers have suggested that ongoing writing on a weekly basis is better than daily, since weekly writing retains its freshness and doesn’t become routine, and I would agree,” says Rossman. “I think that the emotional vitality and meaningfulness of the writing is more important than the frequency.”
• Don’t completely shy away from writing about the negative. In this study, the control group wrote about an unemotional topic, not a negative one. But Rossman points out that other studies have shown that writing about traumatic experiences can also enhance health. “Painful feelings need to be expressed in some way,” he says. “If they aren’t externalized, they can create stress in the body that can lead to physical symptoms. Plus, the act of writing can give you confidence that you’re capable of facing the negative experience and tolerating the painful feelings." The act of putting your feelings into written words can give you a liberating sense of mastery over them, Rossman adds. So write about the positive, but when you're struggling with a painful experience, use writing to help you get through it.
• Don’t worry about the medium. If you would prefer to write your feelings to someone, go ahead and do your writing in email form—but only if you feel confident of your confidante’s response. “If you are looking for empathy or support, and you don’t get it, that could be discouraging and undermine the positive effect of the writing,” warns Rossman.