The Benefits of Writing

Jordan B Peterson
Raymond Mar

past. during 15 to 30 minute sessions. individuals are instructed to write continually for the allotted time.The Benefits of Writing Abstract Careful writing about traumatic or uncertain events. physiological and psychological. present or future. in the control condition. During each session. Recent investigations have shown that the explicit written description of an ideal future produces similar results. Written accounts of trauma positively influence health. pioneered by James W.1 has linked written narrative to enhanced mental and physical health. Studies of this effect typically employ written output. without regard for grammar or spelling. 2 . from a single instance to multiple sittings. although variations such as verbal expression do exist. appears to produce a variety of benefits. spread out over a number of weeks. Narration and Health A fascinating body of research. Participants are asked to describe a traumatic personal event in writing (or. to write about a trivial topic). A large body of research conducted in the industrial and business domains also demonstrates that future authoring or goal-setting results in improved productivity and performance. Pennebaker in 1986. These sessions range in frequency.

Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. and continuing for several weeks afterwards. Individuals in the control condition were asked to write about their plans for the day.6 Kitty Klein and Adriel Boals recently demonstrated. beginning during the writing period.1 a group of participants engaged in a writing task. write about what you have imagined.5 and higher grade-point averages for students. Now. Individuals assigned to write about a stressful occurrence in their own life typically experience improvements in general physical health. After reading a set of general instructions.8 The health benefits of trauma narration have been replicated using a very different sort of content. those who wrote about their best possible selves scored significantly higher on measures of psychological well-being (which included such concepts as personal happiness and life satisfaction). 3 . using methods similar to those described previously. Three weeks later. attributable to a decrease in anxiety and depression-related intrusive thoughts.2 greater long-term psychological health3 and improved immune function. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. using a number of populations around the world. 4 Other benefits include faster re-employment for recently dismissed professionals. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could.In conjunction with this manipulation. 7 These results appear robust. and have been demonstrated in over two-dozen studies. a number of health-related variables are assessed. as well. significant increases in working memory among participants in two well-controlled studies. as opposed to past traumatic experiences. Pennebaker demonstrated that such positive consequences appears related to the development of a coherent narrative (rather than as a consequence of reduction of 1 Think about your life in the future. Health records were also obtained and analysed for all participants. compared to those who write about trivial events. Laura King9 explored the potential ramifications of writing about life goals and ideals. Although the two groups did not differ in average healthcare use prior to the experiment. These improvements include fewer consultations with physicians. people who wrote about their ideal future visited medical professionals less often than those in the control condition in the five months following the study.

The ability to “get on with life” following a traumatic incident appears closely allied with recovery. and better recovery in the following year.14 Elovainio and Kivimäki. that careful writing may help in the production of organized. A number of researchers have found support for the psychological benefits of forming plans following a traumatic loss.10 11 Harber and Pennebaker12 suggested.repression or inhibition or emotional catharsis). Self-defined. Failure to do so appears associated with depression. Narrated Future Goals and Health The formation and pursuit of goals can be a valuable tool in coping with loss or trauma. Folkman.16 As psychologists have become increasingly well-informed about the biochemical nature of emotional responses.13 who studied a population of caregivers who had lost their partners to AIDS. Outcome-oriented thinking and behaviour is clearly useful in times of emotional upset. Stein. found that well-explicated goals were related to better wellbeing at the time of bereavement. intrinsically important goals also seem more effective than externally defined 4 . in response to evidence that satisfactory progress is being made towards desired goals. and in the analysis of cause/effect relationships in the past and their application to the present and future. Researchers interested in human emotion have found that the pursuit of goals. it has become obvious that much of the positive emotion that human beings feel is a consequence of the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. as well.15 who examined a population of Finnish nurses. and to the more general goals of the entire organization. as well as their attainment. This applied to goals associated with each job or work unit. It also appears to aid day-to-day well-being. by adults and children. found that the degree to which goals were clearly stated and well-comprehended by staff moderated the amount of strain experienced individually.17 This means that it is difficult for people to experience hope and interest and engagement in the absence of well-specified goals. Trabasso and Richards. are associated with happiness. motivated by the apparent hopelessness of all activity. structured memories.

of course. Peterson. than no specified goals whatsoever). • Direction. was related to academic performance. which are often motivated by sources of negative emotion. however.22 The model they constructed collaboratively has four major tenets: • Goals that are specific and difficult lead to better performance than vague exhortations to “do your best” (and. effort and persistence are three primary motivational mediators of the 5 . Kennon M. Locke and Latham laid the base for the initial theoretical work on the benefits of goal-setting. and provide part of the scientific groundwork for the programs available at www. provision of • Other factors such as competition. In the words of the authors: “This finding suggests that those people who can identify sets of goals that well represent their implicit interests and values are indeed able to function more efficiently. Shore and Pihl were obtained at McGill University.selfauthoring. personal reasons had grade point averages higher than those predicted by their American College Test scores. Written Goals and Productivity Decades of empirical research has supported the proposition that setting goals and pursuing them can lead to significant improvements in task performance. Individuals in the process of pursuing goals for intrinsic.19 and that the advantages to intrinsic motivation tended to become self-reinforcing and to last.” 20 Similar results obtained by Morisano. Remarkably. 21 The majority of this work has been explored in a business context. demonstrating that attainment of internally-motivated goals was much more likely than attainment of those fuelled by external sources. Scores for the American College Test were compared with each student’s final grade-point average. flexibly.or grade-related.goals. and participation in decision-making do not affect performance beyond their function in establishing and adjusting the commitment to specific and difficult goals. and to rate their reasons for pursuing them. Sheldon and Linda Houser-Marko18 asked first-year students to describe eight future goals. and integratively across all areas of their lives. such as pressure from relatives or guilt. The most stunning outcome of this extended study. Hirsh. • The relationship between goal difficulty and performance is linear and positive. however. the majority of their goals were not at all course.

23 Latham and Kinne24 found. or to focus on imagining the details of the process required to attain a good mark. and to study its causal structure. and not on a piecework basis. Such goals appear particularly important in uncertain circumstances. task complexity. Students who engaged in process-simulation performed significantly better on the test than those who merely imagined the positive outcome. Following this mental simulation.27 Laboratory research has replicated these findings in such basic domains as memory. Additional basic research has helped establish that fantasizing about a desired future (compared to a less valuable present) helps tag desired future states with positive affect.28 mathematical ability.goal-setting/performance relationship. such as research and development26 and managerial planning. mediated as they are by expectations of success. This improvement appeared to be a consequence of study-plan formation and execution on the part of the successful group. Ability. conducted in real-world workplaces and the laboratory. because of rapidly changing circumstances. cognitive mediator.29 and reaction time.32 University students were asked to imagine either the goal of doing well on an upcoming midterm. Locke and Latham erected their theory on a foundation of important empirical work. Success at near or proximal goals also seems capable of enhancing distant or long-term goal commitment. as well as a decrease in exam-related anxiety. participants wrote down the contents of their imaginings. feedback. commitment.30 Further investigation revealed that participation in goal-setting clearly bolsters understanding of strategy.25 These findings also held true in the case of more abstract occupations. where many variables must be considered. 34 6 . that logging crews assigned a specific and difficult goal were significantly more productive (and had better job attendance) than a similar crew who were merely urged to do their best. for example. Task strategy constitutes a fourth.33 The importance of nearer or proximal goals has also been investigated. and where longer-term goals have to be constantly evaluated. Such improvement remained even when workers were paid by the hour. and situational constraints are all possible moderators of the goal-setting/performance relationship.31 Pham and Taylor have begun to decompose the process of goal-attainment (through proximal goals).

the process by which such goal-setting exerts its effects appears broadly generalized. Such benefits do not appear bound by conventional categorical domains. thoughts and emotions in the present. cognitive ability and task performance. specific goals can facilitate performance in an unrelated domain (such as academic achievement). It appears possible that writing. present. and future. and lack of meaning. causal conclusions about life’s important events may also help reduce the burden of uncertainty and threat that may remain active. past. even years after a traumatic event occurred. physical health. actions. Drawing specific. despair. which is a formalized form of thinking. which is associated with uncertainty and doubt. Clarifying purpose and meaning into the future helps improve positive emotion. Likewise. emotionally. as they encompass psychological well-being. helps people derive information from their experiences that helps them guide their perceptions. and which may be experienced as hopelessness. comprehension of larger organizational goals (relatively removed from individual task aims) reduces the personal strain suffered by workers. and reduces threat.Conclusions Writing about uncertainty. which is associated with movement towards important goals. Establishing difficult. Furthermore. has multiple benefits. 7 .

& Broaders.. Vol. W. & Stone. L. 63 (5). outcome types. J. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. W. S. The immunological effects of thought suppression. Expressive writing can increase working memory capacity. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. J. 872-884. J. 239-245. D.1. & Graesser. 95 (3). 255-264. J. R. 66 (1). Sheldrick. S. B. 8. control. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Shore. 10 (6). Hirsh. Vol. pp. 156-160. J. M. D. & Kivimäki. J. K.. J. Disclosure of trauma and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. J. (1986). and elaboration improves academic performance in university students. Vol.. Trabasso. C. J. (2001).. Vol. 55 (10). Vol. Journal of Applied Psychology. Written emotional expression: Effect sizes. and moderating variables. 4. Margulies. 13. & Sharp. (1997) Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. N. K. L. and moderating variables. & Pihl. 7 Klein. Vol. S. Davison. Pennebaker. A. (2001). J. Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative. Esterling. 338-346. & Wilhelm. J. (1998). Pennebaker. 95 (3). K. A. M. J. Written emotional expression: Effect sizes. J. Cognitive. A. K. Petrie. Predicting psychological well-being from beliefs and goal-appraisal processes during the experience of emotional events. 19. 66 (1). & Beall. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Expression of stressful experiences through writing: Effects of a selfregulation manipulation for pessimists and optimists. Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. & Pennebaker. Vol. & Francis. (1990). N. Psychological Science. & Glaser. P. (1999). A. Disclosure of trauma and immune response to a Hepatitis B vaccination program. J. (1998). Pennebaker.. 109 (1). 174-184 for a review and research synthesis examining effect size and moderating factors... & Thomas. R. Accelerating the healing process. Vol.. Kiecolt-Glaser. Christianson). W. (1998). 174-184 for a review of these effects. T. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.. W. Emotional expression and physical health: Revising traumatic memories or fostering self-regulation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.. M. W. J. L. C. E.).. & Pennebaker.. J. M. 8. L. A. A. D. 5. & Schneiderman. M. Vol. J. A. 787-792. G. K. A. G. In Goldman. J. 6 Morisano. (1996). A. B.. J. M. 520-533. & Richards. 174-184 for a review of this effect. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Occupational stresses. Personal goal setting.. Journal of Clinical Psychology. P. 17 (1). W. Health Psychology. 90-93 for a current review of theoretical explanations and directions for further research. Wortman. K. Booth. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 11 Pennebaker. B. Folkman. W. S. Vol. Current Direction in Psychological Science. W. H. King.. K. Vol. & Pennebaker. Emotional disclosure through writing or speaking modulates latent Epstein-Barr virus antibody titers. M. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 3. 130-140. (1992) Overcoming traumatic memories. Pennebaker. and strain among nurses in the Finnish health care system. 274-281. Beal. Hillsdale. 10 Baikie. Stein. (1995). (1994). outcome types. Effects of disclosure of traumatic events on illness behavior among psychiatric prison inmates. reflection. (1998). J. W.. 71 (3). Patterns of natural language use: Disclosure. W. 528-537. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.. personality. outcome types. goal clarity.. J. (1988). 8 . R. S. Pennebaker. M. 95.. 56 (2). 84-92. Vol. Pennebaker. M. See Smyth. O.. 66 (1). Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Pennebaker. R. (1997). W.. Research in Nursing and Health. W. 75 (5). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 588-602. In The Handbook of Emotion and Memory: Research and Theory (ed. Vol. J. (1996). 11. R. Colder. Vol.. The health benefits of writing about life goals. Mahweh. Greenberg. Vol. (1998). Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Cognition and Emotion. 10 (3). 12 Harber. Pennebaker. M. & Beall. J.. 62 (1).. M. S. Seagal. J. (1999). 27 (7). T. Also. NJ: LEA for more on the relationship between depression and goal-formation. 601-626. & Graybeal. 2. (Eds. Pennebaker. 1264-1272. R. 162–166. Cameron. S. 56 (2).. 72 (4). 517-524. Van den Broek. D. K.. Fletcher. E. & Boals. Vol. K.. Essays in Honor of Tom Trabasso.. Richards. Antoni. A. 58 (3). NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. J.. (1986). D. See also Stein. Written emotional expression: Effect sizes. L. B.. W. emotional and language processes in disclosure.. N... Kiecolt-Glaser. Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. B. Elovainio. (1996). K. (2001).. and social integration. Disclosure of trauma and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. J. K. M. 798-807. K. A. See Smyth. (2010). 15. 130. J. Vol. and moderating variables. 359–387. Vol. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Appraisal and goal processes as predictors of psychological well-being in bereaved caregivers. Petrie.-Å. (2000). Journal of Abnormal Psychology. (1988). See Smyth. 14. & Glaser. & Seagal.. Vol. Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. W. Booth.. & Nicholls. 9. 274-281. 1243-1254. Vol. 239-245. A. Peterson. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

(1981).. 33. Vol.. The neuropsychology of anxiety. Knowledge of score and goal level as determinants of work rate. Self-regulation through goal setting. and assigned goals on the performance of government employees. (2001). Deci. E. Vol. 60. T. Englewood Cliffs. Sheldon.. (1979). P. Welch. P.. 482-497. Cornell University. S. & Marshall. and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation.. Vol. L. 42 (1). S. (1999). J. (1999).. Cartledge. 30. Locke. P. Psychology and Aging. Vol. 64. 50. 59-65.. & Graesser. Saari. 20. 135-158. 22. A. A. N. & Bryan. N. L. need-satisfaction.. K. R. H. 187-191. and the pursuit of happiness: Can there be an upward spiral? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. R. P. West. Latham.. A. (1970).. A. Journal of Applied Psychology. Bandura. & Schunk. Locke.. Goal striving.. and performance. A. (1969). (1986). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. G.. Locke. 19. (1979). Personnel Psychology. H. (1975). Stein. 163. P. S. (Eds.. 80 (1).. Perspectives on motivation (pp. 122-124. 16 (2). G. (2001). (1978). R. Vol. (1991). (1995).16. (1970). E. Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980. J. In R. E. Vol.. G. 237-288). P. Pham. New York: Cambridge University Press. 27. 50. & Taylor.. 53. 152-165.. 212-247. Vol.. NJ: Prentice Hall. Journal of Applied Psychology. & Fujita. C. In Goldman. 5. J. Journal of Applied Psychology. 31. & Elliot. N. Improving job performance through training in goal setting. B. Latham. 29... The “practical significance” of Locke’s theory of goal setting. 18. Affective neuroscience. Oettingen. Gray. L. 21. C. Journal of Applied Psychology. and longitudinal well-being: The selfconcordance model. D. 163-171. Cartledge. 35. Vol. 25 . Sheldrick. 163-168. Cultivating competence. Psychological Bulletin. & Knerr. goal setting. Dienstbier (Ed. A. Bandura. Vol. and performance. 22. Sheldon. (1982). 1-11. 17 . D. E. H. C.. K. Effects of goal-setting and feedback on memory performance and beliefs among older and younger adults. Latham. Vol. 59. (1999). & Saari. L. 63. M. Self-concordance. 125-152. R. Studies of the relationship between satisfaction. 240-250. Vol. & Balders. E. Essays in Honor of Tom Trabasso. (1991). J. & Thorn.. L. J. A.. G. G. G. M. Mitchell. Ithaca. & Locke. S. 76. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. self-efficacy. A. M. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation: Vol. Locke. K. (1982). The effects of holding goal difficulty constant on assigned and participatively set goals. & Latham. 38. M. Ibid. 26. M. G. J.. insights from the practice and science of goal setting. A. & Locke. 80 (5). A.). E. A. D. P. Vol. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance. The relationship of intentions to motivation and affect. P. The importance of supportive relationships in goal setting. Self-regulation of goal setting: Turning free fantasies about the future into binding goals. (2001). and Latham. A motivational approach to self: Integration in personality. 34. Studies of the relationship between satisfaction. Pak.. The importance of participative goal setting and anticipated rewards on goal difficulty and job performance. S. 41. The effects of self set. Vol. P. Locke. L. 24. 736-753. L. 23. & Kinne. & Houser-Marko. Vol.. G. (2001). B. 212-247. 90 (1). C. (1990). M. 399-404. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. NY. participatively set. 151-156. Englewood Cliffs. For example. (1964). L. NJ: LEA. Mahweh. G. (1974). 28 . E. Locke. Canadian Psychology. 32.. Vol.). A. & Schnetter. G. A. Social foundations of thought and action: A social-cognitive theory. goal attainment. S. The reciprocal effects of science and practice. Panksepp. (1981). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. pg. F. Shaw. & Broaders. A theory of goal setting and task performance.. & Saari. F. Latham. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Latham... Latham. NJ: Prentice–Hall. G. (1998). A. Latham.. New York: Oxford University Press. Vol. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Latham. Vol. & Knerr. goal setting.. 5. Journal of Applied Psychology. P. 586-598. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance. P. N. Vol. K. L. P. Van den Broek. 135158. Academy of Management Journal. Self-regulation through goal setting. & Latham. 9 . G. E. Predicting psychological well-being from beliefs and goalappraisal processes during the experience of emotional events. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. E. & Dossett. E.