Saturday, June 15, 2024

Journal your new year

| December 26, 2023 1:00 AM

Time flows without sentiment. Yet every Dec. 31, we take note of it with big fanfare: Out with the old, in with the new. A fresh start full of good intentions.

While they celebrate it in spring, one New Year’s tradition in Persian culture is particularly reflective in its symbolism. New year celebrants “drop” any angst, resentment, bitterness, fear or other negative emotions from the old year into a small fire as they leap over it, so the new year begins with a clean slate. 

It’s a purging exercise, a cleanse. It may seem silly, but it kind of works. You feel lighter afterward. Unshackled.

You don’t need a special ceremony to lighten the load. Journaling can purge emotions all year. Research and conventional psychological wisdom strongly suggest that writing down feelings can improve physical and mental health and help us reach goals.

University of Texas psychology professor James W. Pennebaker studied the effects of expressive journaling for two decades and found that the more people do it, the better their lives can be, especially when journaling develops into a “story narrative.” His study emphasized pen to paper, not computers. The physical element and more time involved deepen the effect.

In one successfully replicated study he asked a group of jobless engineers — not a stereotypically touchy-feely profession — to write about their thoughts and feelings on any personal subject daily for 20 minutes. A control group didn’t write. Both groups continued to look for work.

Those who journaled were five times more likely to get work (26%) than those who didn’t journal (5%) during the study period. The journalers didn’t get more interviews, but they were more likely to get hired. Why? Going through the exercise of writing out thoughts and feelings — adding the physical to the mental — reduces stress by putting people literally in closer touch with them, sort of ordering thoughts and physically externalizing them so they can purge associated emotions.

The result is less stress and more clarity. Think of it as written meditation.

People who journal also need the doctor less often. Other studies have linked journaling or personally expressive writing to improved immunity and reduced pain from arthritis and other conditions, less asthma, and some improved PTSD symptoms. Journaling has been linked with improved liver function and lower blood pressure. Researchers in New Zealand found that people with skin wounds healed faster when they wrote in diaries about their deepest feelings.

In a study reported in The Oncologist, people with a cancer diagnosis felt better about their disease after keeping a gratitude journal. Fifteen minutes of gratitude journaling (writing a list of what you’re thankful for) has also been linked with better sleep.

While these, like most studies, are more suggestive than conclusive, it certainly can’t hurt to try. At the very least, this once-popular lost art can start the new year with a mind less shackled. Regular journalers George Washington and Mark Twain certainly thought so.

May your new year be shackled by nothing but joy.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Do columns count as journaling? Email