A Research Study on the Health Benefits of Writing About Goals
In 2001, Laura King, one of the researchers in the field of writing and health, conducted a study in which she looked at what happened when college students wrote about something she calls “their best possible future self.” By this time, a large amount of data had already been collected on the benefits of writing to work through difficult past experiences. King became interested in exploring what other kinds of writing might be beneficial to health. Her study is one that I don’t think has been written about enough.
She looked at 81 undergraduate students, randomly dividing them into four groups: a group which wrote about their most traumatic life event; a group which wrote about a best possible future self; a group which was asked to write about both; and a group which wrote about a non-emotional or control topic. Each group wrote for 20 minutes a day for 4 consecutive days.
Those students selected to write about a best possible future self were instructed to write in response to this prompt:
Think about your life in the future. Imagine that 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 all your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.
A couple of interesting results came out of this study. First, when students were tested three weeks after writing, it was found that writing about a best possible self was significantly less upsetting than writing about a traumatic life event. Second, the distress of writing about a traumatic life event was short-term. It had dissipated by five months. Third, both kinds of writing were beneficial. That is, when students were studied five months after writing, those students who wrote about a traumatic life event, those students who wrote about a best possible self, and those students who wrote about both—all of them experienced a decrease in illness. Only those students who wrote about a non-emotional topic showed no change.
The study is published in the July 2001 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. In her discussion, King draws the following conclusion:
The act of writing down our deepest thoughts and feelings is key to the benefits of writing. However, and importantly, the contents of our deepest thoughts and feelings need not be traumatic or negative. Quite the contrary, examining the most hopeful aspects of our lives through writing—our best imagined futures, our ‘most cherished self-wishes’—might also bestow on us the benefits of writing that have been long assumed to be tied only to our traumatic histories.
I think this an enormously interesting and useful study. What I do not think is that this study should be used as a reason to counsel anyone and everyone to “move forward” to “think about the future” and “let go of the past.” Rather, I think what this study does is offer evidence that both are fruitful. Looking back toward unfinished business in the past is fruitful. Looking forward to a possible future is fruitful.
And it seems reasonable to conjecture that in the best possible circumstances, each person would be permitted to choose for themselves—perhaps at times with some guidance—when to look back—and when it might be time to look forward.
In my own experience, as a writer, and as a person who’s had the privilege to listen to lots and lots of stories of healing, it strikes me that we are continually moving back and forth between the two.
King’s research, I think, offers guidance—a starting point—a way to use writing as a tool—a kind of blueprint—when one is ready to go forward.