Journaling can be a powerful tool for improving many different aspects of your life, including your happiness. The more regularly you practice it, the more you’ll get out of it. But what exactly are the benefits of journaling, and why should you try to journal every day? How do you get started, and what should you do if you fall off the wagon?
Journaling is a way of visualizing, analyzing and evaluating your internal dialogue. It allows you to put down on paper your myriad, often scattered daily thoughts, so you can better organize different aspects of your life. Most people already have the skills they need to bring about change, but need help staying focused. Daily journaling can do this, and it starts with building a new habit, maintaining it, and fully appreciating the beneficial changes in your life.
We’re not exaggerating when we say that daily journaling can change your life for the better. In this article, we’ll look at the real benefits, backed by science, plus how to get started, and how to keep things going. Daily journaling helps you take charge of your happiness, and we’ll show you how.
- Why you should journal every day
- How to get started with daily journaling
- Closing words
Journaling, gratitude, mindfulness, and introspection. What do all these things have in common? It’s that they’re all significantly correlated to your happiness. That’s what the section Journaling For Happiness is all about in the biggest (freely available) guide on how to be happy.
Why you should journal every day
It sounds like a big commitment, doesn’t it? Well, it is and it isn’t.
It does require some investment in the beginning, both in time and energy. But the secret to doing anything on a daily basis is to build a habit out of it. This chapter covers some of our research on journaling. These are all real results from real, peer-reviewed studies in scientific publications.
Journaling for self Improvement
Self-improvement can take all kinds of different forms. Hey, none of us is perfect! We all have things we’d like to improve. You may want to have more patience, deal with stress better, or to be more confident. You’re not the only one, and studies show that journaling can help.
Self-Efficacy, confidence and control
Studies have shown that journaling can help improve one’s self-efficacy and locus of control. Self-efficacy refers to one’s belief in their ability to succeed in a given task. High self-efficacy means feeling confident in your ability to deal with daily hurdles. Locus-of-control is a related psychological term, which refers to the belief that you, rather than external forces, are in control of your life.
Increased self-efficacy and locus-of-control have been linked to greater happiness. One study found that “Internal LOC is related to high self-esteem… [which] is a powerful and important psychological factor in mental health and well-being.” And this study by van Zyl and Dhurup concluded that increased self-efficacy “seems to facilitate both satisfaction with life and happiness in general.”
Learning new skills
Studies have shown that self-improvement techniques are most useful for learning new skills – like assertiveness, problem-solving, even being tidier. Studies have shown that journaling mediates learning new skills by helping people to draw more connections, better understand others’ perspectives, and develop critical thinking.
Journaling for self-awareness
Self-awareness can be defined as the “conscious knowledge of one’s own character and feelings.” Being more self-aware can contribute to your happiness in a number of ways. It means being better prepared for difficult situations, by having more control over your emotions, and better understanding other peoples’. You’ll be better able to deal with things out of your control, and anticipate how they’ll affect you.
Basically, greater self-awareness means understanding how your mind works, which puts you back in control. As the authors of one study put it:
Journaling enhances the self-discovery process, which increases self-awareness.
Their study included journaling as part of a three-tiered approach to improving self-awareness and self-care.
Journaling to deal with trauma
Journaling has long been a tool used by therapists to help people deal with trauma. And for good reason. One review of “focused expressive writing” (journaling) found that it relates to “improvements in health and well‐being, across a wide array of outcomes and participant characteristics.” Another study found that “writing related to a distressing event [was] associated with … statistically significant decreases in distress and perceived burden.”
In fact, journaling can help you to flip the tables, and find benefits in events you once considered damaging or destructive. A study in the Annals of Behavioural Medicine found that “Writers focusing on cognitions and emotions developed a greater awareness of the positive benefits of the stressful event … [which was] mediated by greater cognitive processing during writing.”
Journaling to remember positive life events
Your journal is your own personal time machine. You can go back to any page, any date or time from the moment you started (which is a great reason to start right now), and see what made you happy, or how you dealt with negative life events. This does two things.
First of all, it helps you to put things in perspective. The ability to predict how good or bad events will impact your happiness in the future is called affective forecasting. And it turns out that humans are truly terrible at it. We consistently blow things out of proportion and think those good events will make us happy for far longer than they do, and that a bad event will make us far more miserable than is actually the case.
By looking back in your journal, you’ll be able to recall how you felt when confronted with these situations, and chuckle at how life-altering it seemed at the time. This is another kind of self-awareness and will help you to be a more emotionally stable person in the long-run.
Second, it will allow you to recall positive life events. “Remembering the good times”, as it were, is actually an effective way to reinforce your emotional state and protect your mental health and happiness.
How to get started with daily journaling
Hopefully, you’re convinced of the many benefits of daily journaling. So what are the best ways to get started with daily journaling?
1. Form a new habit
Like any daily activity, it will be easier if you make a habit of it. A habit is “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” When you start to realize all the benefits of daily journaling, you won’t want to stop. Author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, has written a great guide for building new habits. You can find it here.
2. Start small
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
This is an ancient Chinese proverb that is certainly true of journaling. You don’t need to fill pages on your first day. You don’t even need to fill one page. Journaling is all about self-expression; if you don’t have much to say, then don’t say much. It’s as easy as that.
There are lots of ways to go about journaling. You can describe your day chronologically; lots of people find this easier. Or, just start with the part of your day you remember best, and go from there. For more tips on writing your first words, check out our article here.
3. Ask yourself leading questions
Ask yourself lots of leading questions.
- Why was it memorable?
- How did you feel at that moment?
- What were you thinking?
- What did it remind you of?
- Have you had other situations like that?
- How did you deal with those?
Step into the shoes of a therapist or interested friend for a moment.
This is the power of journaling – getting to step back from your thought process and write critical questions about it. Imagine a close friend is telling you the same story and looking for help figuring out what it means. What kinds of questions would you ask them?
4. Write about things that are important to you
Your habit will be easier to keep up if it’s important to you – so write about things you care about. Once you’ve done your first few entries, start focusing more on things that made a difference to your day, or that you’re currently dealing with.
Ask yourself the same kinds of questions, but ask some harder ones too.
- Did I deal with it properly?
- How else could I have reacted?
- What precipitated the event?
- Why is it important to me?
- Why is it important to others?
- Did I do the right thing?
These are the kinds of things you should be evaluating every day. You’ll be more self-aware, and come to realize what is and isn’t in your control. That means increased self-efficacy and locus-of-control.
And remember, journaling isn’t just about your problems. Journaling is a way to celebrate your achievements, remember your happiest moments, and immortalize your victories. It’s a place to try and practice a positive mindset.
5. Try not to miss a day…
Once you’ve started, try to keep it going. On days where you really don’t feel like it, write something small. Write just a few words. Once you get started, you may find that the day’s pressures, fatigue and stress flow out of you and onto the page.
Seriously, if we haven’t said it enough before: journaling is seriously therapeutic. But if you get through a few words and just can’t or don’t want to go any further, don’t stress.
Journaling isn’t about forcing yourself. At the very least, it should be useful, and hopefully, enjoyable. But it certainly shouldn’t make you feel miserable. The most important thing is to keep up the habit by writing what you can. We’ve spoken before about minimum viable effort, and some days, that’s all you can manage. That’s fine. You did what was needed to keep the habit going, and that’s all you can ask of yourself.
One good way to keep things up when you don’t feel much like writing is to read through past journal entries. This may inspire you to write about your day today, or it may not. But journaling isn’t just about writing. It’s also about reading your words and reflecting on them. Then write down your reflections, and reflect on those. And so on.
But if you aren’t able to write more than a few words, try to read a page or two. That counts as journaling too.
6. … but if you do skip a day of journaling, then don’t panic
Okay, it happens. Nobody’s perfect (that’s what we’re here for, right?). You missed a day. Or two. Or a week. A few thoughts:
1. It happens to everybody. You’re not a loser, you’re not a failure, you’re not “bad at journaling.”
Nobody, ever, in the whole history of journaling, since the beginning of time, has ever written every single day of their entire life since the day they first put pen to paper. Guaranteed. So relax. You’re in the same camp as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Mark Twain, Charles Darwin and Frida Kahlo — all famous journalers who definitely missed a day or two.
2. You can get right back up on the horse. Today. It’s seriously never too late. Don’t let a few days turn into a month and a lost habit. Go grab your journal, and write a few sentences, right now. Even if it’s just about the fact that you stopped journaling.
Okay, so how about some leading questions. Why did you stop? Any reason in particular? Too tired? Stressed? Not feeling it? Not getting out of journaling what you wanted? Great, let’s break that down (in your journal)!
3. Identify and resolve the issue that prompted you to stop journaling. Use those leading questions to identify what made you miss your writing habit. Now, develop strategies for how you’ll deal with it next time. Write those down. Next time you miss a day, go back to that entry – you’ll have already given yourself the answer.
Daily journaling can help you to organize your thoughts, overcome your hurdles, and increase your happiness. There are many different reasons why you should start journaling, lots of ways to go start, and simple methods for staying on track. So start your daily journal today, and see how it can make you happier.
Do you want to share your own experiences with daily journaling? Did I miss an awesome tip that you used to find happiness in your journal? I’d love to hear in the comments below!
Academic researcher and writer with a passion for statistical analysis, neuropsychology and mental health.