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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Desiderata: Does Expressive Writing Make You Happier?

Written by Max Ehrmann to his diary, c.1920
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.

Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

I had forgotten about this little piece of prose poetry until my little sister was assigned to memorize it for her gifted class. And I had a sudden flashback to my own eighth grade self memorizing this as well. I'm starting to realize how much that class has shaped who I am, as much as people may scoff and say, "We never learned anything in gifted."

Desiderata raises something of psychological interest: Max Ehrmann wrote this to his diary. Did that make him happier? Healthier? Pennebaker's expressive writing paradigm showed that people who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than before writing. In the expressive writing paradigm, participants were asked to write about traumatic, stressful or emotional events for 15–20 minutes on 3–5 occasions. Those who did so generally had significantly better physical and psychological outcomes compared with those who wrote about neutral topics. 

The Pennebaker writing paradigm seems to suggest that the expression of emotion helps to cope with the emotion. However, the results seem to go against another study by Bonanno & Keltner (1997), in which the expression of emotion in facial expressions led to higher levels of grief. This supports the facial feedback hypothesis, somatic marker hypothesis, and James-Lange theory, which all say that the body greatly influences emotional experience. 
"Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit."

Perhaps we can resolve the dilemma of "to express or not to express" in this way: express through the mind instead of letting the body dictate. Perhaps expression through writing distracts from one's physical expressions by focusing energy elsewhere. Perhaps crafting words allows you to look at your experience in a different light, perhaps see it as a lesson learned, or growing experience.

It might not work for everyone, but why not try?--write in a diary, write a poem, write a song. "Be cheerful. Strive to be happy."

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