One of Ben Franklin’s most admirable qualities was how self-reflective he was.
He was constantly striving to be a better man—and part of that endeavor involved thinking deeply about why he did the things he did. Franklin kept a journal throughout his life where he recorded his thoughts and mused on why he was the way he was.
In my own work, I’ve discovered that the benefits of writing about yourself are powerful indeed. Keeping a diary or journaling about your life might sound self-indulgent, but actually, they help us satisfy a deep-seated desire to make sense of our lives and the world around us. If you want to lead a meaningful life, you have to be able to tell a positive story about your life—and the only way to do that is by reflecting on who you are and how you got to be that way. As I recently wrote in The Washington Post, a great tool of reflection is writing:
In studies, James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin invited people into his lab to write about the most upsetting experiences of their lives for fifteen minutes a day for three to four days in a row. The people who wrote about an adversity ended up going to the doctor less often, they got better grades, registered lower blood pressure, and displayed fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety compared to a control group.
The reason was meaning. Pennebaker found that those in the expressive writing condition were actively trying to make sense of what happened to them, and the ones who benefited the most from the exercise were the ones who made the most progress in meaning-making over time. The research subjects forged meaning in one of three ways.
First, they probed into the causes and consequences of the traumatic experience — how the experience shaped them, what they lost and gained. Pennebaker measured this by counting their use of what he calls “insight words,” like “realize” and “understand.” Second, they showed a shift in perspective. Instead of writing about why this happened to me they wrote about why he abused me or why she divorced me. In other words, they put some emotional distance between themselves and the event, and displayed some empathy toward others. Finally, they were able to find some sort of good that resulted from the experience — some positive outcome that redeemed the bad.
Maybe you don’t think of yourself as the journaling kind, but in the spirit of Ben Franklin, give it a try. Try reallocating 5 or 10 minutes of the time you spend on social media each day to writing about your life. You could write about a defining experience of your life, good or bad, and how it shaped you. You could write about something funny that happened today. You could write about something that’s been bothering you. Whatever subject you choose to write about, chances are that thinking a little more deeply about it will bring you some meaning.
Emily Esfahani Smith, who co-wrote the New York Magazine article, is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters (Crown). She writes about psychology, culture, and relationships. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, and other publications. Emily is also a columnist for The New Criterion, as well as an editor at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.