4 Ways to Control Your Mood with Nothing But a Pen

Photo by Namita Azad
Photo by Namita Azad
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The Challenge: We all want to feel good, but sometimes it’s a challenge.
The Science: Grabbing a pen and writing may be the fastest and easiest way to do so!
The Solution: Try these unique writing exercises to make a huge difference in your day.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn,” wrote Anne Frank. Journaling as a means to self-awareness has been recommended for centuries starting with the Stoics in ancient Greece. But what does the science really say?

It agrees! Modern researchers found that writing in a structured way can help us do the following:

  • heal;
  • boost our positive emotions;
  • increase our productivity.

Why should we care? Because writing is something that you can do anywhere at anytime and without the need of anyone else. In short, it’s the most self-sufficient and cheapest way to make a big difference in your life.

No need to be Shakespeare, think of these exercises as writing a long Facebook post with the privacy level set on “Only Me”. Find a moment when you can write uninterrupted in private; and… grab that pen (or keyboard). Research shows that different techniques work for different things:

Here’s what to write when there’s drama:

The Pennebaker Writing Exercise

Indication: a bad break-up, a fight at work, a big disappointment, a distressing conversation with a loved one, feeling angry about things that happened years ago… if these events still loom large in your mind and still make you upset, this exercise is for you.
Duration: 20 minutes of uninterrupted writing each day, for 4 consecutive days.

Instructions: over the next 4 days, write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the emotional upheaval that has been influencing your life the most. In your writing, really let go and explore the event and how it has affected you. You might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationships, or even your career. Write continuously for 20 minutes.
Research says: this exercise allows you to make sense of negative emotional experiences. As a result, physical and mental health improvements follow, from a reduction in visits to the doctor, to a decrease in negative emotions and stress.

Here’s what to write when you want to boost your mood:

Best Possible Self.

Indication: if you want to feel better, or if you want to regain a sense of control and direction in your life, this exercise is for you.
Duration: 20 minutes of uninterrupted writing each day, for 4 consecutive days.

Instructions: imagine yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of your life dreams and the fulfillment of your potential. Now write about what you imagined.
Research says: writing about your best possible self is a powerful way to think about your goals, to rearrange your priorities if needed, and to increase your sense of control. Writing about our best possible self has been associated with an immediate boost in positive emotions; and with increases in life satisfaction accompanied by a decrease of physical problems in the long term.

Here’s what to write when you want to keep feeling groovy:

Three Good Things.

Indication: if you want to feel better and catch a break, or if you want to increase your optimism and gratitude, this exercise is for you.
Duration: a few minutes at the end of each day, for at least 7 consecutive days.

Instructions: at night, write down three things that went well during the day, and why they went well (e.g., you managed to stop and get a cup of espresso at your favorite coffee place; e.g., your loved one gave you compliments). It is also important to write down why it happened (e.g., because I did a good job managing my time and getting organized; e.g., because we managed to create a positive and mutually supportive relationship).
Research says: this exercise helps you notice what is going well in your life, counter-balancing our tendency to pay more attention to the negative (negativity bias) — a bad day at work stands out in our mind, but the many OK days just escape our notice and fly under the radar as plain routine. Because it helps us notice the good things happening in our life, this activity leads to an increase in happiness and a reduction of depressive symptoms over six months (actually the effect of this activity increases over time, probably because people keep doing the exercise, as it is easy and fulfilling).

Here’s what to write when you want to get your act together:

Value affirmation.

Indication: if you want to increase your productivity, and to reconnect to a sense of purpose and integrity in the process, this exercise is for you.
Duration: as needed (even just once), for how long it takes.

Instructions: take a few moments to think about the values that you hold most dear. Here is a list of 10 value types to find some inspiration, but feel free to add any value that feels significant to you. When you are done, pick the three values that most resonate with you right now and write down why they are important to you.
Research says: writing about values makes you stronger when facing temptations, and it helps you stay focused on what matters. Low performing students who did this exercise improved their grades over the next two years, and overweight women who similarly wrote about their values weighted less and ate less 10 weeks later.

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Paolo Terni

Paolo Terni

Dr. Paolo Terni, MAPP, PCC, is an expert on the psychology of achievement and on the development of human capital. A Solution-Focused coach based in California, he empowers his clients to work smarter, to accomplish more, and to thrive in challenging circumstances. Since 1997, Paolo Terni has been using his coaching and training skills to help companies in Europe and in the USA to successfully implement Organizational Development (OD) projects. Passionate about education, he mentors coaches for ICF accreditation purposes and he works pro-bono with schools and no-profits. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Master of Applied Positive Psychology, Paolo Terni is conducting further research on the development of character strengths in conjunction with the Positive Psychology Center.
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