It's Science: This Simple Activity Can Make You So Much Happier

How to Keep a Journal
Photo: @gerihirsch

It certainly bodes well for my profession that from a young age, writing has always been one of my most treasured outlets; a way to express thoughts and access corners of my imagination that otherwise seemed indeterminable. But there was a period of time fairly recently when suddenly, this beloved ritual felt more like a chore. I had recently graduated college, thrown myself into my dream job, and was working incredibly long hours to churn out content at a breakneck pace. It was thrilling, to be sure, but I'd stagger home at the end of the day with the distinct sensation that my brain might liquefy at any moment. On these exhausted evenings, the last thing I wanted to do was pick up a pen and continue writing.

Without the catharsis of parsing through my thoughts, however, I suffered. Those months are a hazy blur in my memory, as I clicked into autopilot mode and lost any semblance of mindfulness. Meanwhile, my anxiety persisted until I felt on edge at every waking moment. I was prone to mood swings that were foreign and inexplicable. At a certain point, I realized I no longer recognized myself, so I took a certain editorial job in L.A., packed up my life in New York City, and moved across the country to start anew and get reacquainted.

Quickly, writing found me again. As I negotiated this new chapter in my life, I was determined to prioritize my mental health, and journaling became a form of therapy once more. It has since become a reflex: During those moments when I struggle to make sense of a gut emotion or simply feel too scattered to think straight, putting pen to paper gives me a sense of autonomy over it all—a far cry from those months when I felt completely unmoored. It's an exercise in perspective, as I can observe my thought process without judgment. If nothing else, it's a way to recalibrate and reorganize my brain. And while I still can't find the motivation to journal on my busiest days, I now know that I can—and will—return to it when I need it most.

"I encourage my patients to think about journaling as an activity they deserve, rather than something they ought to do," says Heather Silvestri, Ph.D., a New York City–based clinical psychologist. "Journaling is very similar to meditating in that there is no way to be 'bad' at it. These are not performative activities, and there really isn't any particular goal other than to be as present as possible. Knowing your own particular psychological process and feeling a sense of agency over your thoughts and feelings is something everyone can learn to do."

But as with any self-care ritual, getting started is often the most intimidating aspect of journaling. Below find some pointers to help you establish the habit—and learn more about how it might just change your perspective on everything.