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The Power of the Pen

Boosting happiness, health, and productivity

Four months after a hundred senior engineers were laid off by a computer company, not a single one was reemployed. In an effort to improve the situation, Stefanie Spera and Eric Buhrfeind conducted a startling study with James Pennebaker, a mild-mannered health psychologist.

They divided the engineers into three groups. In the control group, the engineers did nothing unusual. The remaining engineers were randomly assigned to a second control group, where they wrote about time management, or an expressive writing group, where they kept a journal about their deepest thoughts and feelings associated with the job loss. Both groups wrote for five days, 20 minutes per day, describing the emotional challenges of searching for a new job, relationship problems, financial stressors, the immediate experience of being fired, losing their coworkers and feeling rejected.

Three months later, in the control groups, less than 5% of the engineers were reemployed. In the expressive writing group, more than 26% of the engineers were reemployed.

Interestingly, expressive writing didn’t land the engineers any more interviews. It just increased the odds that they were hired when they did have an interview. Expressive writing affected the quality, not the quantity, of their job search. The engineers who wrote down their thoughts and feelings about losing their jobs reported feeling less anger and hostility toward their former employer. They also reported drinking less. Eight months later, less than 19% of the engineers in the control groups were reemployed full-time, compared with more than 52% of the engineers in the expressive writing group.

Why did writing about thoughts and feelings surrounding job loss multiply the odds of being reemployed? Pennebaker believed that suppressing negative experiences was stressful, and expressing them might have lifted the burden. A decade earlier, Pennebaker and Sandra Beall had invited adults to write for 15 minutes a day over the course of four days. In the control group, the adults wrote about everyday topics―they described their shoes, their living rooms, and a tree. In the treatment group, the adults wrote about the most traumatic experience of their lives. They expressed their deepest thoughts and feelings about the traumatic event.

Pennebaker was stunned by the results: writing about a traumatic experience made them worse off. They were unhappier and more distressed, and had higher blood pressure. Pennebaker was dismayed. He had apparently discovered a foolproof method for causing depression.

But in the next six months, the effects reversed. Consider the number of visits that participants made to a local health center due to illness. In the control group, the adults showed no changes in illness visits. The adults who wrote about a traumatic event showed a 50% decrease in illness visits per month. Expressing the traumatic event improved their health; it just didn’t do so right away. One participant explained, “Although I have not talked with anyone about what I wrote, I was finally able to deal with it, work through the pain instead of trying to block it out. Now it doesn't hurt to think about it.”

Since that groundbreaking study, Pennebaker and colleagues have replicated and extended the effects many times. Although writing about trauma is uncomfortable in the short run, after approximately two weeks, the costs disappear and the benefits emerge―and they last. Pennebaker’s team has demonstrated physical and mental health benefits of emotionally expressive writing with arthritis and chronic pain patients, medical students, maximum security prisoners, crime victims, and women after childbirth, from Belgium to Mexico to New Zealand. They’ve found decreases in depression, anxiety, anger, and distress. They’ve shown that writing about stressful experiences also reduces absenteeism from work among employees―and increases grade point averages among students. They’ve even found that emotionally expressive writing has objective immune system benefits. After writing about traumas, people show higher t-cell growth, better liver function, and stronger antibody responses to hepatitis B vaccinations and Epstein-Barr virus.

In total, well over a hundred experiments have documented the health benefits of disclosing thoughts and feelings about negative events. “When people write,” Pennebaker summarizes in The Secret Life of Pronouns, “healthy changes occur.” Talking into a recorder works just as well as writing, but it’s not effective to express the trauma without language, through mediums such as art, music, and dance. It seems that people need to express the negative experience in words—either through writing or speaking—to reap the health benefits.

It appears that expressive writing helps people make sense of bad experiences. Indeed, Pennebaker’s research has shown that writing about traumatic events only improves health when people describe facts and feelings. Together, writing about what happened and how they felt about it enables people put together a coherent story. By putting their feelings into words, they can start making sense of a negative event. They come to understand it better, gain insight and perspective, and sometimes even find silver linings. Now that they have a coherent story about the negative event, it’s easier to summarize and move on.

The benefits of expressive writing aren’t limited to negative events. Research by Laura King shows that writing about achieving future goals and dreams can make people happier and healthier. Similarly, there’s plenty of evidence that keeping a gratitude journal can increase happiness and health by making the good things in life more salient. And Jane Dutton and I found that when people doing stressful fundraising jobs kept a journal for a few days about how their work made a difference, they increased their hourly effort by 29% over the next two weeks.

For expressive writing to be effective, timing is critically important. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, legions of more than 9,000 counselors descended upon New York, hoping to prevent posttraumatic stress and relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression and grief. But research suggests that most of the interventions didn’t do much good for local citizens, firefighters and other people close to the tragedy. In Redirect, psychologist Timothy Wilson describes how many of the counselors conducted critical incident stress debriefing, encouraging trauma victims and observers to spend several hours expressing their thoughts and feelings as soon as possible. Evidence shows that this can backfire: in one study of people who suffered severe burns in a fire, those who went through critical incident stress debriefing had higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety a year later. Expressing thoughts and feelings about a trauma turns out to be most salutary if we wait until we’re ready to start processing it with thoughts as well as emotions.

Timing matters with writing about positive events, too. In one experiment led by Sonja Lyubomirsky, people counted their blessings either once a week or several times per week. Reflecting on good things once a week increased well-being; doing it several times a week didn’t. As the authors speculate, “Perhaps counting their blessings several times a week led people to become bored with the practice, finding it less fresh and meaningful over time.”

Journaling is a practice shared across many centuries by icons—not only writers like Virginia Woolf and Mark Twain, but also inventors from da Vinci to Edison, cultural icons such as Pablo Picasso, military leaders such as general George Patton, and political leaders from Washington to Jefferson to Franklin to Truman to Churchill. Along with preserving a record of their ideas and experiences, journaling might have helped them make sense of stressful experiences, focus on their goals, and achieve success. As Virgin mogul Richard Branson writes, “my most essential possession is a standard-sized school notebook.”

For more on success and well-being, see Adam's new book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller.