Want to be happy? Keep a journal

Martha Roberts invites you to road-test research around feeling good. Here, she talks about writing thoughts in a journal


Want to be happy? Keep a journal


Keeping a diary can help your brain overcome emotional upset and lead to greater happiness.


Make a habit of jotting down things that have happened to you in your life to see if you feel happier. 


Matthew Lieberman of UCLA, asked volunteers to have an MRI brain scan before asking them to write for 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days. Half the participants wrote about an emotional experience, while the other half wrote about a neutral experience.

Those who wrote about an emotional situation showed more activity in the emotion-regulating section of the brain which, in turn, appeared to trick the brain into feeling better in an unconscious way, in what some people have dubbed the ‘Bridget Jones effect’. Lieberman says, ‘[Writing a diary is] initiating an emotion-regulating process that the person usually isn’t even aware of. Research indicates that if you are writing in a diary or talking to a friend about your feelings, it will often be beneficial.’ 

The greatest benefit was obtained by writing about emotions in an abstract sense – for example, making up poetry or scribbling down song lyrics – rather than describing them in vivid language that might make people feel more perturbed by churning up their feelings.


  • Buy a beautiful journal. Paper diaries are still popular; US market research found 83 per cent of young women still keep a diary compared with 69 per cent in the 1990s. Prof Lieberman’s research also found that writing by hand had a bigger emotion-regulating effect than typing.  
  • Pen one line per day. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project (Harper, £9.99), says: ‘The idea of keeping a journal was too daunting, so I decided instead to keep a “one-sentence journal”.’ Each night, she writes at least one sentence about what happened that day, so she can appreciate this time in her life, both now and in the future. 
  • Don’t just write… A 2007 survey found that there was a range of ways the respondents expressed themselves in their diaries, including incorporating quotes, colours, poems, song lyrics and even their own made-up language. A playlist (for example, on iTunes or Spotify) can also act as a kind of journal, prompting and charting memories. 

MARTHA ROBERTS is an award-winning UK health writer and mental health blogger at mentalhealthwise.com

Photograph: iStock