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Journaling is good for you

Here's a post at BBC (16 August 2013) advising us that journaling is good for our health, but warns against "online" journaling.

Well, Duh!

I've long advised my students to get their ideas out of their heads and onto paper.  And not just to scratch out a few words intended to jar one's memory later, but really take the time to write out as precisely as possible what the idea is, and to come back often to revisit and revise it.

There's a good reason for this: once a thought has been externalized, it is in a way part of the objective world of reality rather than only part of the subjective world of our minds.  Entirely subjective things are notoriously difficult to analyze, learn from, improve, etc.  But if you've got it lying there in front of you, detached from whatever happens to be going on in your mind at that moment, then you can bring to bear the full arsenal of your brain's analytic capabilities.

The BBC article basically says that we can do that with our own emotions too.  When we journal about what happened to us and how we feel about it, we are preserving (albeit not particularly well, of course) our psychological and emotional state at the time.  There are two benefits, one immediate and one long-term.

The immediate benefit is that the act of expressing something seems intimately connected to understanding it.  Finding the right words to properly represent our emotions goes a long way to explaining to our own brains what we're actually thinking and feeling.  And your brain can use that to better and more fully integrate the described experience into your psyche.

In the longer term, you can learn a lot about yourself by re-reading your journal and reading what you thought about long-ago, barely-remembered experiences.  Of course, this benefit requires more discipline than many people have these days - you have to be diligent both about carefully documenting your life and making the time to go back and re-read attentively.

There's one proviso here: there is, as far as I can tell, both no benefit and many dangers to journaling "socially" - via the dreaded Facebook or some such.  As the fictional-but-nevertheless-wise Gregory House said: "Everybody lies."  And you lie to yourself too.  However, it is far more difficult to be honest to others than it is to yourself.  You ought to journal for your benefit alone, and not to seek advice or to titillate others, or to gain social standing.  You journal to understand yourself; that requires honesty; and honesty comes easiest in privacy.

There is also a danger - one that I think has been blown out of proportion, but that truly exists nonetheless - that if you "share" your journal, you will open yourself up to unnecessary and generally harmful criticism by people who don't really know anything about.

Obviously, this does not mean you can't use journaling software; of course you can.  I tend to use Evernote for that (but I also sometimes use pen and paper).  It's not about the tools you use, it's about the audience.  The proper audience for your personal journal is only you.

So, get in there and write!

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