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Writing your way to happiness

Can we write our way to happiness?

On first blush this question oozes self-indulgence and privilege. More woo-woo bullshit. An unwelcome resurrection of the Me Decade. (Forgive the reference, now impossibly quaint, as we suffer under the “leadership” of GNOTUS…Grand Narcissist of the United States.)

On second blush,“can we write our way to happiness?” could be the tagline for endless Writers’ Workshops in Tuscany.

But stay with me for a moment. There is a body of actual scientific research (remember what that is?) on the health and mood benefits of writing and rewriting one’s one narrative. (Google “expressive writing and health” for many citations.) Now there is research on story-crafting and behavior.

We all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of ourselves and the world(s) in which we live. We create that narrative. We construct stories out of experience, listen to others tell us about ourselves, learn (even if we don’t think we are, even if we don’t want to) what is expected, what is acceptable, and how we fit (do not fit) in. Over time, a grand narrative emerges. And we recite it to ourselves. Over and over. For some, this self-talk is debilitating.

What if we wrote it out this story. Looked at it. And then learned to tell another plausible tale, an alternative narrative, based on the same information.

That’s what researchers at Duke University did with a group of freshmen who (because of bad grades) told themselves they were losers, that they were unfit for college. That was their narrative. These students underwent a “story-changing intervention” (oh, I know, shades of 1984). But wait…in this intervention, they got information (and were exposed to inspirational videos) about students who struggled during freshman year but improved as they adjusted to college. The “loser freshman” story could then be recast into an upward trajectory, “this is just all part of growth and adjustment” story. And guess what? Students who had been prompted to change their personal stories improved their grades and were far less likely to drop out than the control group with no intervention.

I think about the notion of writing one’s way to a more positive self-image, a healing place, an invigorating place, a place of power and self-worth every time I sit with my writing group at Oregon State Penitentiary. They are all men serving life sentences for murder. Collectively, they have spent more than two centuries behind bars. There are eight of them. Do the math. To stay sane, to move beyond debilitating shame and endless guilt, they write about the lives they now live, the men they are learning to become, the men they have become. They are changing the narrative of their lives.

2 comments

1 Pamela J Cytrynbaum { 04.11.18 at 4:42 pm }

I actually think this is revolutionary. And absolutely essential. What did Joan Didion say? Something in the realm of …we tell ourselves stories so we can live…?

2 Lauren { 04.12.18 at 8:17 pm }

I SEE this working with the Lifers in my prison writing group. Thinking of yourself as the main character in the story of your life gives you a kind of control that almost none of these guys ever felt…and certainly do not feel in prison.

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