Writing down thoughts, feelings, and experiences from your day really can make you feel better—even happier. Journaling thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative, can actually change your brain chemistry to increase feelings of peace and happiness, which tell your brain to stop releasing stress hormones and to start producing calming hormones.
"Writing helps us because it gives us an outlet for our feelings rather than keeping them bottled up, which makes us subject to them in unanticipated ways," explains Laura Lewis Mantell, M.D., a physician specializing in pain and stress management, and a personal and professional coach. "Writing lets us process our internal experiences before we share them with others, and if we write about our feelings and thoughts, we can begin to make meaning and sense of what's happening to and around us."
Research is on your side to start this healthy habit. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Mental Health found that positive-affect journaling (PAJ) decreased feelings of anxiety, depression, and general distress after one month. Another 2018 study published in the journal Innovation in Aging found that writing—specifically expressive writing and gratitude writing—increased feelings of resilience and optimism and even improved physical health. (Researchers from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley found that gratitude is strongly linked to a decreased stress and higher life satisfaction).
Dr. Mantell says the advantages of journaling go far beyond increased happiness: "Benefits include improved health and immune system functioning, better adjustment to life transitions, overcoming adversity, and just generally functioning better."
How to Start Journaling to Boost Happiness
Simply write down something that made you happy.
If you want to start journaling and don't know how, know this: Basically, anything goes. The simplest option? Record good things that happened and positive feelings. "If the goal is specifically to feel happier, it may help to jot down two to three things that made you feel happy that day," suggests Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety. "This will not only increase your attention on those topics, but it will train your brain to be scanning for those items throughout the day."
Write down what you're grateful for.
Penning not only what makes you happy, but what you're grateful for also helps you focus on the positive in your life. A gratitude journal can include two or three, or (however many you'd like) specific things—items, actions, experiences, people—you're grateful for each and every day. Just as it does when writing about what makes you happy, your mind will begin to seek out things to be grateful for during your day.
Write down what's upsetting you.
Another approach involves writing down a few things that bothered you or that you found troublesome that day. However, if you go with this method, there's an important second step. Instead of merely stating problems and worries, Carmichael says, "right next to them, note ways that you can manage those situations more effectively." The distinction here is that, in the first two methods you're increasing awareness and focus on positive things; whereas in this third method, you're going the extra step not only to name negative feelings and thoughts, but to improve self-efficacy and problem-solving skills, which also increases happiness. Again, the best approach is different for everyone. Give each of these methods a try to see what feels most genuine and helpful to you.
Set intentions—and a timer—if you're feeling stuck.
If your mind is swirling and you can't seem to get started, think about what you're trying to accomplish—why are you journaling in the first place? Setting an intention helps allow you to settle into the process with more ease. Then set a timer. "Write continuously [for 10 to 20 minutes] about your deepest thoughts and emotions (rather than what you might cook for dinner) regarding something in your life: work, money, family, uncertainty, health, social life," Dr. Mantell says. Set the timer on your phone and keep writing—your mind will find the right direction.
Prompt yourself with questions.
Margaret Moore, CEO of Wellcoaches Corporation and author of Organize Your Emotions, Optimize Your Life, suggests using a set of daily questions to get you started. Consider journaling in response to questions like: What's going well? What's causing discomfort? What are my opportunities to grow or try something new? What's my key word mantra for today? Don't worry about having a "right" answer, there isn't one—simply start writing and see where it takes you.