Research shows that writing can have positive effects on wellbeing (for some examples see: Lepore and Smyth, 2002; Harris, 2006; Lowe, 2004; Wright and Chung, 2001). No-one knows how writing works (King, 2002, p. 119), although there has been some interesting brain research done (Lieberman et al., 2007). However, what is known is that it is the process of writing that leads to wellbeing benefits, and not what is done with the writing afterwards.
Much of the research that has been done about the benefits of creative writing, has involved people being asked to write about negative events. But I agree with Laura King (2002, p. 131) who says that it is not necessary to write about negative emotions or traumatic events to gain benefit from writing. People also benefit from writing that inspires happiness or joy. I believe it is important to achieve a balance between writing that helps you deal with unhappy thoughts or problems, and more neutral or positive writing that creates a sense of calm or encourages positive thoughts.
You know the saying to be ‘in the flow’? What activities do you do that give you that feeling of being in the flow? A ‘flow activity’ is something that you do just for the sake of it, and which takes up your whole concentration. And ‘flow activities’ are good for you (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008). For many people, writing is a flow activity, and I believe that is partly how it helps wellbeing.
Encouraging people to write can help them clarify their thoughts and feelings and express them to someone else. A Danish psychiatrist called Peder Terpager Rasmussen, recognizing the usefulness of writing in helping clients to explore their personal experiences, developed a systematic approach to guided letter writing. Rasmussen explained that the writing “is only a pathway, a channel, or a means towards the therapeutic end of self discovery and self healing”, and he introduced “the metaphor of using a train as a means to explore a country” (Rasmussen and Tomm, 1992. p. 4). Writing could be the train you use to explore the country that is you.
For an interesting discussion on a theoretical model to explain how mindfulness can lead to positive change see “Mechanisms of mindfulness” by Shapiro, Carson, Astin and Freedman (2006).
So far, most of the research on therapeutic writing has been carried out in the USA and I feel that therapeutic creative writing is less advanced in the UK than in the USA. However, I find it encouraging that the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR, 2011) here in the UK has commissioned an evidence synthesis or systematic review of research on the use of therapeutic writing in long-term conditions.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. London: Harper Perennial.
Harris, A. (2006). Does expressive writing reduce health care utilization? A meta-analysis of randomized trials. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72, 243-252.
King, L. (2002). Gain without pain? Expressive writing and self-regulation. In S. J. Lepore & J. M. Smyth (Eds.), The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and well-being (pp. 119–134). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
Lepore, S. J.; Smyth, J. M. (eds.) (2002) The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and well-being. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
Lieberman, M. D.; Eisengerger, N. I.; Crockett, M. J.; Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H.; Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18, 421-428.
Lowe, G. (2004). Health-related effects of creative and expressive writing. Health Education, 106, 60-70.
NIHR (2011). Therapeutic writing for people with long-term conditions. (call for proposals, HTA No. 11/70). Retrieved 28 January 2012 from http://www.hta.ac.uk/funding/standardcalls/11_70cb.pdf.
Rasmussen, P. T.; Tomm, K. (1992). Guided letter writing: A long brief therapy method whereby clients carry out their own treatment. Journal of Strategic and Systemic Therapies, 11, 1–18.
Shapiro, S. L.; Carson, L. E.; Astin, J. A.; Freedman, B. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62, 373–386 .
Wright, J.; Chung, M. C. (2001). Mastery or mystery? Therapeutic writing: a review of the literature. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 29, 277-291.