Can You "Rewrite" Experiences to Improve Health & Happiness?

Research has been done at length to show the benefits of writing about one’s personal experience. Results show that the act of putting our thoughts on paper helps improve a wide variety of general health conditions, including: better cardiovascular health, sharpened memory, and even reduced visits to the doctor overall.

Now, new research reviewed by a recent New York Times article entitled "Writing Your Way to Happiness" takes on whether or not “writing – and then rewriting – your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.”1

According to the article, the idea is that “we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right.” What the researchers in these newer studies are looking for is whether or not we can change our self-perceptions – and in effect, our lives – by writing and editing the "stories" we tell ourselves, about ourselves. The end goal would be to “identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.” So far, the results found in this research are substantial.

A study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology observed two groups of college freshman who were struggling academically at Duke University. One group was simply asked to write their stories about their academic experience. The other group was asked to do the same, but in addition, was also given an “intervention” which involved watching videos of juniors and seniors talking about how their grades improved once they adjusted to college. This second group of students were then asked to rewrite their own personal narratives about their college experience, having been encouraged to think that they just needed more time to adjust to the academics, as opposed to thinking they just ‘weren’t cut out’ for it.

The results of this study showed that “students who had been prompted to change their personal stories improved their grade-point averages and were less likely to drop out over the next year.” Specifically, only 5 percent of the group that was shown the videos and asked to rewrite their personal narrative had dropped out. This is significantly lower than the 20% dropout rate that was seen by the group that was not asked to rewrite their stories.

What do researchers have to say about such notable results? A University of Virginia psychology professor, Dr. Timothy D. Wilson, states that: “These writing interventions can really nudge people from a self-defeating way of thinking into a more optimistic cycle that reinforces itself.” He further explains that even though writing does not solve every problem, it does help people learn to cope and “find new meaning” in what they’re struggling with.

How might this research relate to people living with chronic pain? Similar to what Dr. Wilson mentioned: even though expressive writing – clearly – cannot provide a cure for a condition which has none, still, we might be uplifted by the idea that rewriting our take on our own stories can empower us to find new meaning in the struggle. It’s also important to note that it doesn’t have to be the physical act of writing, but really any sort of 'recording' of one’s story. For example, if a person is unable to write or type with their hands, dictating it to another person or using a recording device can be just as beneficial.

How else might these studies be applied to dealing with chronic medical conditions? Another psychologist, Dr. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, says he thinks of “expressive writing as a life course correction.” Dr. Pennebaker led an experiment with college students in which one group was asked to write for 15 minutes per day about an important personal issue, and the other group was asked to write about superficial topics. The group that wrote about personal issues had “fewer illnesses and visits to the student health center.” To Dr. Pennebaker, it’s all about “getting people to come to terms with who they are, [and] where they want to go.”

This is not to say that those of us with chronic RA will be visiting our doctors any less. Instead, it’s the element of “coming to terms” with something in ourselves that might benefit people dealing with chronic pain and conditions for which there are no cures. The acceptance of that which we cannot control – the condition itself – does not stop us from being empowered to ‘rewrite’ that which we can control: how we respond to our condition. Granted, that doesn't mean it's necessarily easy to confront.

One such example comes from a study done at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, where clients were asked to write about why they haven’t achieved certain personal goals yet, and then later asked to rewrite their stories, with the help of life coaches, who guided them in being more honest about their reasoning. Like the author of the article, the anecdotal results were positive. People were able to see where they were avoiding certain truths about their decisions; for example, a mom who used to believe the story about her life was: “I don’t have time to exercise” came to realize that: “I really don’t enjoy exercise, and… I use work and the kids to excuse my lack of fitness”. After the activity of rewriting, it became clearer that these participants could achieve their goals, by making shifts in what they believed about themselves or their lives. As the co-founder of the Human Performance Institute, Dr. Jack Groppel, explains: “When you get to that confrontation of truth with what matters to you, it creates the greatest opportunity for change.”

How can these findings help us in our daily lives, specifically when managing a chronic condition like RA? Perhaps one takeaway is that, even though the condition itself is permanent, the stories we tell ourselves about it can either be helpful or unhelpful. These stories, unlike most other things in life, are actually under our control, and, as this research shows, they heavily impact our behaviors. Because these behaviors contribute to both our health and our happiness, it would benefit us to be conscious about which stories we believe in. So, for example, if we can’t seem to get ourselves to engage in a certain behavior (like the mom who couldn’t find time to exercise), or if a certain facet of our life isn’t working for us (like the students who thought they weren’t cut out for college), we could benefit from taking the conscious (and brave!) act of revisiting and editing the mental stories we tell ourselves about it. This is not to say that such an act is easy or even emotionally painless, or that this research necessarily applies in all areas. But perhaps there is hope in the fact that some of the stories we 'know' to be true are in fact changeable. It might be worth a rewriting exercise to find out.

Do you relate? Which of your stories about your life, if any, aren’t working for you? Which ones have the potential to be rewritten?

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