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The Benefits of Writing

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Abstract

This is a brief review of the benefits of writing about uncertainty and trauma (including expressive writing and future goal-setting) prior to and including 2010.
The Benefits of Writing
Writing
Jordan B Peterson
Raymond Mar
2
Table of Contents
If you have purchased one of more of the programs
Instructions …………….…………………………………………………………….……… 03
Troubleshooting …………….……………………………………………………………… 03
If you want more information about the benefits of writing
Abstract ……………………………………………………………………………………….. 04
Narration and Health …………………………………………………………………….. 04
Narrated Future Goals and Health …………………………………………………… 05
Written Goals and a Productive Life ………………………………………………… 07
Conclusions ………………………………………………………………………………….. 08
References …………………………………………………………………………………… 09
The Benefits of Writing
3
Instructions
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need to use the links below, along with the username and password that was
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Abstract
Careful writing about traumatic or uncertain events, past, present or future, appears to
produce a variety of benefits, physiological and psychological. Written accounts of trauma
positively influence health. Recent investigations have shown that the explicit written
description of an ideal future produces similar results. A large body of research conducted in
the industrial and business domains also demonstrates that future authoring or goal-setting
results in improved productivity and performance.
Narration and Health
A fascinating body of research, pioneered by James W. Pennebaker in 1986,
1
has linked
written narrative to enhanced mental and physical health. Studies of this effect typically
employ written output, although variations such as verbal expression do exist. Participants
are asked to describe a traumatic personal event in writing (or, in the control condition, to
write about a trivial topic), during 15 to 30 minute sessions. These sessions range in
frequency, from a single instance to multiple sittings, spread out over a number of weeks.
During each session, individuals are instructed to write continually for the allotted time,
without regard for grammar or spelling.
In conjunction with this manipulation, a number of health-related variables are assessed,
beginning during the writing period, and continuing for several weeks afterwards.
Individuals assigned to write about a stressful occurrence in their own life typically
experience improvements in general physical health, compared to those who write about
trivial events. These improvements include fewer consultations with physicians,
2
greater
long-term psychological health
3
and improved immune function.
4
Other benefits include faster re-employment for recently dismissed professionals,
5
and
higher grade-point averages for students.
6
Kitty Klein and Adriel Boals recently
demonstrated, as well, significant increases in working memory among participants in two
well-controlled studies, attributable to a decrease in anxiety and depression-related intrusive
6
thoughts.
7
These results appear robust, and have been demonstrated in over two-dozen
studies, using a number of populations around the world.
8
The health benefits of trauma narration have been replicated using a very different sort of
content. Laura King
9
explored the potential ramifications of writing about life goals and
ideals, as opposed to past traumatic experiences. After reading a set of general
instructions,
1
a group of participants engaged in a writing task, using methods similar to
those described previously. Individuals in the control condition were asked to write about
their plans for the day.
Three weeks later, those who wrote about their best possible selves scored significantly
higher on measures of psychological well-being (which included such concepts as personal
happiness and life satisfaction). Health records were also obtained and analysed for all
participants. Although the two groups did not differ in average healthcare use prior to the
experiment, people who wrote about their ideal future visited medical professionals less
often than those in the control condition in the five months following the study.
Pennebaker demonstrated that such positive consequences appears related to the
development of a coherent narrative (rather than as a consequence of reduction of
repression or inhibition or emotional catharsis).
10
11
Harber and Pennebaker
12
suggested, as
well, that careful writing may help in the production of organized, structured memories, and
in the analysis of cause/effect relationships in the past and their application to the present
and future.
Narrated Future Goals and Health
The formation and pursuit of goals can be a valuable tool in coping with loss or trauma. The
ability to “get on with life” following a traumatic incident appears closely allied with
recovery. Failure to do so appears associated with depression, motivated by the apparent
hopelessness of all activity. A number of researchers have found support for the
1
Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could.
You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the
realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you have imagined.
7
psychological benefits of forming plans following a traumatic loss.
Stein, Folkman, Trabasso and Richards,
13
who studied a population of caregivers who had
lost their partners to AIDS, found that well-explicated goals were related to better well-
being at the time of bereavement, and better recovery in the following year.
14
Elovainio and Kivimäki,
15
who examined a population of Finnish nurses, found that the
degree to which goals were clearly stated and well-comprehended by staff moderated the
amount of strain experienced individually. This applied to goals associated with each job or
work unit, and to the more general goals of the entire organization.
Outcome-oriented thinking and behaviour is clearly useful in times of emotional upset. It
also appears to aid day-to-day well-being. Researchers interested in human emotion have
found that the pursuit of goals, as well as their attainment, are associated with happiness,
by adults and children.
16
As psychologists have become increasingly well-informed about the
biochemical nature of emotional responses, it has become obvious that much of the positive
emotion that human beings feel is a consequence of the release of the neurotransmitter
dopamine, in response to evidence that satisfactory progress is being made towards desired
goals.
17
This means that it is difficult for people to experience hope and interest and
engagement in the absence of well-specified goals.
Self-defined, intrinsically important goals also seem more effective than externally defined
goals, which are often motivated by sources of negative emotion, such as pressure from
relatives or guilt. Kennon M. Sheldon and Linda Houser-Marko
18
asked first-year students to
describe eight future goals, and to rate their reasons for pursuing them, demonstrating that
attainment of internally-motivated goals was much more likely than attainment of those
fuelled by external sources,
19
and that the advantages to intrinsic motivation tended to
become self-reinforcing and to last. The most stunning outcome of this extended study,
however, was related to academic performance. Scores for the American College Test were
compared with each student’s final grade-point average. Individuals in the process of
pursuing goals for intrinsic, personal reasons had grade point averages higher than those
predicted by their American College Test scores. Remarkably, however, the majority of their
goals were not at all course- or grade-related. In the words of the authors: “This finding
8
suggests that those people who can identify sets of goals that well represent their implicit
interests and values are indeed able to function more efficiently, flexibly, and integratively
across all areas of their lives.
20
Similar results obtained by Morisano, Hirsh, Peterson,
Shore and Pihl were obtained at McGill University, and provide part of the scientific
groundwork for the programs available at www.selfauthoring.com.
Written Goals and a Productive Life
Decades of empirical research has supported the proposition that setting goals and pursuing
them can lead to significant improvements in task performance.
21
The majority of this work
has been explored in a business context. Locke and Latham laid the base for the initial
theoretical work on the benefits of goal-setting.
22
The model they constructed
collaboratively has four major tenets:
Goals that are specific and difficult lead to better performance than vague
exhortations to “do your best” (and, of course, than no specified goals whatsoever).
The relationship between goal difficulty and performance is linear and positive.
Other factors such as competition, provision of feedback, and participation in
decision-making do not affect performance beyond their function in establishing and
adjusting the commitment to specific and difficult goals.
Direction, effort and persistence are three primary motivational mediators of the
goal-setting/performance relationship. Task strategy constitutes a fourth, cognitive
mediator. Ability, commitment, feedback, task complexity, and situational constraints
are all possible moderators of the goal-setting/performance relationship.
Locke and Latham erected their theory on a foundation of important empirical work,
conducted in real-world workplaces and the laboratory.
23
Latham and Kinne
24
found, for
example, that logging crews assigned a specific and difficult goal were significantly more
productive (and had better job attendance) than a similar crew who were merely urged to
do their best. Such improvement remained even when workers were paid by the hour, and
not on a piecework basis.
25
These findings also held true in the case of more abstract
occupations, such as research and development
26
and managerial planning.
27
9
Laboratory research has replicated these findings in such basic domains as memory,
28
mathematical ability,
29
and reaction time.
30
Further investigation revealed that participation
in goal-setting clearly bolsters understanding of strategy.
31
Pham and Taylor have begun to
decompose the process of goal-attainment (through proximal goals), and to study its causal
structure.
32
University students were asked to imagine either the goal of doing well on an
upcoming midterm, or to focus on imagining the details of the process required to attain a
good mark. Following this mental simulation, participants wrote down the contents of their
imaginings. Students who engaged in process-simulation performed significantly better on
the test than those who merely imagined the positive outcome. This improvement appeared
to be a consequence of study-plan formation and execution on the part of the successful
group, as well as a decrease in exam-related anxiety.
Additional basic research has helped establish that fantasizing about a desired future
(compared to a less valuable present) helps tag desired future states with positive affect,
mediated as they are by expectations of success.
33
The importance of nearer or proximal
goals has also been investigated. Such goals appear particularly important in uncertain
circumstances, where many variables must be considered, and where longer-term goals
have to be constantly evaluated, because of rapidly changing circumstances. Success at
near or proximal goals also seems capable of enhancing distant or long-term goal
commitment.
34
Conclusions
Writing about uncertainty, past, present, and future, has multiple benefits. Such benefits do
not appear bound by conventional categorical domains, as they encompass psychological
well-being, physical health, cognitive ability and task performance. Furthermore, the process
by which such goal-setting exerts its effects appears broadly generalized. Establishing
difficult, specific goals can facilitate performance in an unrelated domain (such as academic
achievement). Likewise, comprehension of larger organizational goals (relatively removed
from individual task aims) reduces the personal strain suffered by workers.
10
It appears possible that writing, which is a formalized form of thinking, helps people derive
information from their experiences that helps them guide their perceptions, actions,
thoughts and emotions in the present. Drawing specific, causal conclusions about life’s
important events may also help reduce the burden of uncertainty and threat that may
remain active, emotionally, even years after a traumatic event occurred. Clarifying purpose
and meaning into the future helps improve positive emotion, which is associated with
movement towards important goals, and reduces threat, which is associated with
uncertainty and doubt, and which may be experienced as hopelessness, despair, and lack of
meaning.
11
References
1
. Pennebaker, J. W., & Beall, S. K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of
inhibition and disease.
Journal of Abnormal Psychology
, Vol. 95 (3), 274-281.
2
. Cameron, L. D. & Nicholls, G. (1998). Expression of stressful experiences through writing: Effects of a self-
regulation manipulation for pessimists and optimists. Health Psychology, Vol. 17 (1), 84-92; Greenberg, M. A.,
Wortman, C. B., & Stone, A. A. (1996). Emotional expression and physical health: Revising traumatic
memories or fostering self-regulation?
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
, Vol. 71 (3), 588-602;
Pennebaker, J. W., Colder, M. & Sharp, L. K. (1990). Accelerating the healing process.
Journal of Personality
and Social Psychology
, Vol. 58 (3), 528-537; Richards, J. M., Beal, W. E., Seagal, J. D., & Pennebaker, J. W.
(2000). Effects of disclosure of traumatic events on illness behavior among psychiatric prison inmates.
Journal
of Abnormal Psychology
, Vol. 109 (1), 156-160; Pennebaker, J. W. & Francis, M. E. (1996). Cognitive,
emotional and language processes in disclosure.
Cognition and Emotion
, Vol. 10 (6), 601-626; Pennebaker, J.
W., & Beall, S. K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease.
Journal of Abnormal Psychology
, Vol. 95 (3), 274-281; Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R.
(1988). Disclosure of trauma and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy.
Journal of
Consulting and Clinical Psychology
, Vol. 56 (2), 239-245.
3
. See Smyth, J. M. (1998). Written emotional expression: Effect sizes, outcome types, and moderating
variables.
Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology
, Vol. 66 (1), 174-184 for a review of this effect.
4
. Esterling, B. A., Antoni, M. H., Fletcher, M. A., Margulies, S., & Schneiderman, N. (1994). Emotional
disclosure through writing or speaking modulates latent Epstein-Barr virus antibody titers.
Journal of Consulting
and Clinical Psychology
, Vol. 62 (1), 130-140; Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (1988).
Disclosure of trauma and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy.
Journal of Consulting and
Clinical Psychology
, Vol. 56 (2), 239-245; Petrie, K. J., Booth, R. J., & Pennebaker, J. W. (1998). The
immunological effects of thought suppression.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
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1272; Petrie, K. J., Booth, R. J., Pennebaker, J. W., Davison, K. P., & Thomas, M. G. (1995). Disclosure of
trauma and immune response to a Hepatitis B vaccination program.
Journal of Consulting and Clinical
Psychology
, Vol. 63 (5), 787-792.
5
. See Smyth, J. M. (1998). Written emotional expression: Effect sizes, outcome types, and moderating
variables.
Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology
, Vol. 66 (1), 174-184 for a review of these effects.
6
Morisano, D., Hirsh, J. B., Peterson, J. B., Shore, B., & Pihl, R. O. (2010). Personal goal setting, reflection, and
elaboration improves academic performance in university students.
Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 255-264.
7
Klein, K. & Boals, A. (2001). Expressive writing can increase working memory capacity.
Journal of Experimental
Psychology: General, 130
, 520-533.
8
. Pennebaker, J. W., & Seagal, J. D. (1999). Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative.
Journal of
Clinical Psychology
, Vol. 55 (10), 1243-1254. See Smyth, J. M. (1998). Written emotional expression: Effect
sizes, outcome types, and moderating variables.
Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology
, Vol. 66 (1), 174-
184 for a review and research synthesis examining effect size and moderating factors. Also, Pennebaker, J. W.
& Graybeal, A. (2001). Patterns of natural language use: Disclosure, personality, and social integration.
Current Direction in Psychological Science
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and directions for further research.
9
. King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
,
Vol. 27 (7), 798-807.
10
Baikie, K. A. & Wilhelm, K. Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in
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12
11
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997) Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process.
Psychological
Science
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12
Harber, K. D., & Pennebaker, J. W. (1992) Overcoming traumatic memories. In The Handbook of Emotion and
Memory: Research and Theory (ed. S.-Å. Christianson), pp. 359387. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Associates.
13
. Stein, N., Folkman, S., Trabasso, T., & Richards, T. A. (1997). Appraisal and goal processes as predictors of
psychological well-being in bereaved caregivers.
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884.
14
. See also Stein, N. L., Sheldrick, R. A., & Broaders, S. C. (1999). Predicting psychological well-being from
beliefs and goal-appraisal processes during the experience of emotional events. In Goldman, S., Van den Broek,
P. L., & Graesser, A. (Eds.),
Essays in Honor of Tom Trabasso
. Mahweh, NJ: LEA for more on the relationship
between depression and goal-formation.
15
. Elovainio, M., & Kivimäki, M. (1996). Occupational stresses, goal clarity, control, and strain among nurses in
the Finnish health care system.
Research in Nursing and Health
, Vol. 19, 517-524.
16
. Stein, N. L., Sheldrick, R. A., & Broaders, S. C. (1999). Predicting psychological well-being from beliefs and
goal-appraisal processes during the experience of emotional events. In Goldman, S., Van den Broek, P. L., &
Graesser, A. (Eds.),
Essays in Honor of Tom Trabasso
. Mahweh, NJ: LEA.
17
. Gray, J. (1982). The neuropsychology of anxiety. New York: Cambridge University Press.; Panksepp, J.
(1998). Affective neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press.
18
. Sheldon, K. M., & Houser-Marko, L. (2001). Self-concordance, goal attainment, and the pursuit of happiness:
Can there be an upward spiral?
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19
. Sheldon, K. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1999). Goal striving, need-satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: The self-
concordance model.
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20
. Ibid., pg. 163. Deci, E., & Fujita, F. (1995). A motivational approach to self: Integration in personality. In
R. Dienstbier (Ed.),
Nebraska Symposium on Motivation: Vol. 38. Perspectives on motivation
(pp. 237-288).
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
21
. For example, Locke, E. A., Shaw, K. N., Saari, L. M., & Latham, G. P. (1981). Goal setting and task
performance: 19691980.
Psychological Bulletin
, Vol. 90 (1), 125-152, Latham, G. P., & Locke, E. A. (1991).
Self-regulation through goal setting.
Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
, Vol. 50, 212-247,
and Latham, G. P. (2001). The reciprocal effects of science and practice, insights from the practice and science
of goal setting.
Canadian Psychology
, Vol. 42 (1), 1-11.
22
. Locke, E. A. (1964). The relationship of intentions to motivation and affect. Unpublished doctoral
dissertation, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY; Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990).
A theory of goal setting and
task performance
. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: PrenticeHall.
23
. Latham, G. P., & Locke, E. A. (1991). Self-regulation through goal setting.
Organizational Behavior and
Human Decision Processes
, Vol. 50, 212-247.
24
. Latham, G. P., & Kinne, S. B. (1974). Improving job performance through training in goal setting.
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Applied Psychology
, Vol. 59, 187-191.
25
. Latham, G. P., & Balders, J. J. (1975). The “practical significance” of Locke’s theory of goal setting.
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of Applied Psychology
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26
. Latham, G. P., Mitchell, T. R., & Dossett, D. L. (1978). The importance of participative goal setting and
anticipated rewards on goal difficulty and job performance.
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, Vol. 63, 163-171.
27
. Latham, G. P., & Saari, L. M. (1979). The effects of holding goal difficulty constant on assigned and
participatively set goals.
Academy of Management Journal
, Vol. 22, 163-168; Latham, G. P., & Marshall, H. A.
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employees.
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, Vol. 35, 399-404.
28
. West, R. L., Welch, D. C., & Thorn, R. M. (2001). Effects of goal-setting and feedback on memory
13
performance and beliefs among older and younger adults.
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29
. Locke, E. A., & Bryan, J. F. (1969). Knowledge of score and goal level as determinants of work rate.
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Performance
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30
. Locke, E. A., Cartledge, N., & Knerr, C. S. (1970). Studies of the relationship between satisfaction, goal
setting, and performance.
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31
. Latham, G. P., & Saari, L. M. (1979). The importance of supportive relationships in goal setting.
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Applied Psychology
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32
. Pham, L. B., & Taylor, S. E. (1999).
33
. Oettingen, G., Pak, H., & Schnetter, K. (2001). Self-regulation of goal setting: Turning free fantasies about
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34
. Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social-cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs,
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draw attention to a number of researchable issues in the neuropsychology of anxiety / [present] an outline of a theory of the neuropsychology of anxiety that has been developed in detail elsewhere a theory of anxiety: the role of the limbic system [the antianxiety drugs, the brain and anxiety, a theory of anxiety] / the issues [the role of GABA [gamma-aminobutyric acid], the opiate connection, anxiety and depression] (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)