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Writing seems like a perfect medium for expressing ones problems but can it also be used to improve happiness somehow? Maybe through some sort of creative writing exercises that focus on positive thinking?

Are there any positive writing exercise that can improve happiness, if even temporarily?

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you can create events where you imagine, fantasy events like i did created while emailing a imaginated sequence of "private time" in an theoretical scenario with my girlfriend at that time, which made us both happy in that instance. –  thegrunt Dec 30 '12 at 15:32
    
If you could be a little clearer about what you mean by "improve happiness" and give this context, you could also try asking this question on the Writers site. (I add the qualifiers because the audience on Writers won't be able to give you an answer from a point of view of cognitive science, but they may be able to identify exercises that will help you.) –  neilfein Feb 2 '13 at 0:25

1 Answer 1

Writing therapy

There is quite a lot of research on writing therapy and expressive writing more generally. As you note, much of this research relates to writing about negative emotional experiences. There is some support for the positive mental health benefits in writing about traumatic events (e.g., see the meta-analysis by Smyth, 1998). While the interventions are focused on writing about negative events, the intervention

Positive psychology and writing

I have read about a few specific positive psychology writing interventions, such as those mentioned here:

  • Keep a gratitude diary: Take the time each day to write down three things that went well and why. This causes psychological well-being levels to increase in a lasting way.
  • Thank a mentor: Write a letter of thanks to someone to whom you owe a debt of gratitude such as a teacher or grandparent. Then visit the person and read the letter to them. People who do this are measurably happier for more than a month.
  • Learn to forgive: Let go of anger and resentment by writing a letter of forgiveness to a person who has wronged you. Inability to forgive is associated with persistent rumination.

Toepfer and Walker (2009) discuss writing letters of gratitude. They cite several studies showing positive effect, stating that

Expressive writing studies are plentiful and the once anemic domain of letter writing as a vehicle for improving health has seen a recent surge of interest (King, 2001; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006a; Seligman et al., 2005; Lyubomirsky, Dickerhoof, Boehm, & Sheldon, 2009). For example, VandeCreek, Janus, Pennebaker and Binau (2002) asked participants to pray and write letters to God and found that both prayer and the letters increased insight and positive emotion, more so than simple written descriptions, where a single letter to God had the most impact. The authors explained that the act of praying or explaining to another (in this case in a letter to God) was more conducive to personal insight and greater positive emotional formulations about life events. In other words, writing a letter to God was found to improve participant’s positive feelings about life events.

Watkins, Woodward, Stone and Kolts (2003) conducted a study that examined mood changes as the result of various gratitude inductions, one of which was a letter writing condition. Their findings revealed that writing a gratitude based letter produced a positive affect increase compared to the other gratitude inductions (Watkins et al., 2003).

Burton and King found positive effects from getting participants to write about positive experiences. They also summarise some of the literature noting that

research has begun to explore a variety of writing topics that might be associated with health benefits that do not focus exclusively on negative experience. King and Miner (2000) found that writing only about the positive aspects of a traumatic experience was associated with the same health benefits as writing about trauma. King (2001) found that individuals who wrote about their best possible future selves showed physical health benefits as well as enhanced psychological well-being after writing.

Burton and King's instructions were:

Think of the most wonderful experience or experiences in your life, happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music, or suddenly ‘‘being hit’’ by a book or painting or from some great creative moment. Choose one such experience or moment. Try to imagine yourself at that moment, including all the feelings and emotions associated with the experience. Now write about the experience in as much detail as possible trying to include the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that were present at the time. Please try your best to re-experience the emotions involved.

As for a mechanism of operation, Wing et al present the following ideas:

Writing about nontraumatic events likely shares some effects with writing about traumatic events. Writing about any meaningful aspect of life may promote cognitive processing, encouraging the examination, understanding, and assimilation of emotions that might otherwise be left unscrutinized (Pennebaker, 2002; Pennebaker, Mayne, & Francis, 1997; Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999). Writing about a meaningful topic may result in enhanced emotional regulation, related to perceptions of self-efficacy and control over emotional experiences (Greenberg, Wortman & Stone, 1996; King, 2001, 2002; Lepore et al., 2002). Writing may afford the writer the opportunity to gain a sense of mastery over his or her emotions and to clearly identify priorities, preferred outcomes, and goals (King, 2001).

References

  • Burton, C. M., & King, L. A. (2004). The health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences. Journal of research in personality, 38(2), 150-163. PDF
  • King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(7), 798–807.
  • King, L. A., & Miner, K. N. (2000). Writing about the perceived benefits of traumatic events: Implications for physical health. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(2), 220–230.
  • Wright, J. (2002). Online counselling: Learning from writing therapy. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 30(3), 285-298. PDF
  • SMYTH, J.M.(1998).Written emotional expression: effect size, outcome types, and moderating variables. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66(1), 174±184. PDF
  • Toepfer, S., & Walker, K. (2009). Letters of gratitude: Improving well-being through expressive writing. Journal of Writing Research, 1(3), 181-198. PDF
  • Wing, J. F., Schutte, N. S., & Byrne, B. (2006). The effect of positive writing on emotional intelligence and life satisfaction. Journal of clinical psychology, 62(10), 1291-1302.
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