Psychological Benefits of Creative Writing

Much of the research I am going to discuss is on writing and happiness. It deals with the therapeutic value of writing and its relation to improved well-being and reduced stress levels for those who do it regularly.

Research by Laura King, for instance, shows that writing about achieving future goals and dreams can make people happier and healthier. Another study by Adam Grant supports this claim. He found that when people did stressful fundraising jobs, and they kept a journal about how their work made a difference for a few days, their hourly effort had increased by 29% over the next two weeks.

This indicates that writing is not exclusively only for professional writers. In both emotional intelligence and hard sciences like mathematics, writing has been shown to help people communicate highly complex ideas more effectively. The reason is that writing helps eliminate the “it sounded well in my head” line of thinking by forcing your hand to put it out on a blank sheet and to give the thought a tangible form. Brains might forgive whimsical abstractions, but prose does not.

In one study that followed recently fired engineers, the researchers found that those engineers who consistently engaged with expressive writing were able to find another job faster:

“The engineers who wrote down their thoughts and feelings about losing their jobs reported feeling less anger and hostility toward their former employer. They also reported drinking less. Eight months later, less than 19% of the engineers in the control groups were reemployed full-time, compared with more than 52% of the engineers in the expressive writing group.”

The explanation is that writing helps you to give form to your ideas and gets them out of your head; it alleviates the stress of losing your thoughts to time or an overcrowded mind.

In social psychology, there is something, called Pennebaker’s Paradigm and it is tightly related to the benefits of writing. This writing paradigm was used to explore connections between disclosure and physical and mental health and to generate hypotheses about other psychological phenomena. Pennebaker began his research with interest in the impact of traumatic experiences on physical and mental health. He also had a hunch that if people expressed their feelings and thoughts about the traumatic event in words, it would enable them to avoid or improve already existing problems with mental and physical health. His research, now known as the Pennebaker’s Paradigm, has established that expressive writing is generally associated with better health. This work supports a key principle of health psychology which holds that there is an important connection between emotions and health.

However, one does not need to turn only to science to reach the same conclusions. Many creative writers agree that there is nothing better for one’s mental health than writing. The poet Anne Sexton, for example, said: “Poetry led me by the hand out of madness.” Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, acknowledged the critical significance of To the Lighthouse in working through issues connected with her parents. Writing was also a form of therapy for the novelist Graham Greene, who suffered from manic depression. A long line of outstanding writers – Eugene O’Neill, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Sylvia Plath, for example – have written about their emotional pain and produced major literary works. Although these studies do not involve therapeutic approaches, their findings suggest some therapeutic uses of creative and expressive writing that may well be on a firmer psycho-biological foundation. Writing can represent a direct line from feeling and thinking to healing – and there are increasing numbers of those who advocate “writing therapy.”

J.K. Rowling is another example of the therapeutic effects of creative writing. She discovered the power of writing to beat depression. Not just writing a little bit, but building it as a daily discipline and seeing it through. In her early 30s, she started writing the success-to-be book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. She struggled with personal problems during this time:

  • the death of her mother,
  • estrangement from her father,
  • a newborn child,
  • a volatile and short-lived marriage,
  • life on welfare,
  • a battle with clinical depression.

 

Stuck in fearful cycles of rumination and doubt she began writing the novel, Harry Potter.

The hooded monsters in the book, the Dementors, are Rowling’s incarnation of her experience of severe depression:

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself…soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.

Thus, writing and seeing her vision become a reality was the turning point in her depression.

Overall, there is already an impressive base of accumulating evidence, which is beginning to reveal how expressive writing may promote health and emotional well-being – possibly by stress-buffering and cognitive restructuring processes. Writing generates more structure in one’s life, countering the unstructured and chaotic lifestyle that mental health problems can produce. Secondly, writing helps people get out of their head by allowing the writer to concentrate on the page and let it all come out. As Umberto Eco puts it: “To survive, you must tell stories.”

***

Nesrin Nazlieva is a Psychology student at Erasmus University.  She decided to follow the example of her predecessors who, back in 1460, left the Karamanid beylik and immigrated to Bulgaria.  Instead of Bulgaria, however, she chose the Netherlands.  Her short story with a not so short title ‘The Story of a Wanderer Who Traveled the World in Search of His Hat’ earned her a second place in one of the most prestigious national literary contests in 2015.  When she is not glued to a book, she spends time working out in the garden, learning Spanish, and trying very hard not to be the worst player at Ludo.

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