The Unexpected Joy of Journaling

There are endless ways to journal and each of them brings you closer to yourself
By Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author of “Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family.” A Fulbright awardee and mother of four, she has worked on a child survival campaign in West Africa, advocated for an end to child slavery in Pakistan on prime-time TV in France, and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional students in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at JenniferMargulis.net
September 2, 2021 Updated: September 2, 2021

I was in the bookstore looking for a new journal. I pulled one with Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night painting on the cover off the shelf, assessed how many pages it had, and checked the price. It had lines. An unlined journal is better for drawing and sketching, which I like to do, but other than that it seemed perfect. It had a ribbon sewn into its spine to use as a bookmark and enough pages that it would last me several months.

I strive to be a minimalist, but choosing a new journal is a ritual that I engage in three or four times each year. It fills me with optimism and a sense of excitement. For me, starting a new journal is always like finding a new friend.

A Record to Improve Your Health

What do you do with all of your thoughts? How do you sort through your ideas? How do you make sure that you’re on the right path toward healthy living and mindfulness? I believe that anyone can benefit from keeping a journal. You don’t have to be a writer. You don’t have to know how to spell. Especially if you have an active mind—or you’re searching for ways to improve your life—the practice of keeping a journal will help.

Indeed, experts say that keeping a journal can improve your emotional well-being, reduce daily stress, help with problem-solving, and help with gaining mental and emotional clarity.

“There’s an ever-growing body of research on journaling’s many benefits,” Marjorie Ingall, author of “Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, and Independent Children,” wrote in an article in Real Simple.

“Studies suggest that the habit can boost your immune system, lower your heart rate, and lessen some symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Keeping a journal can also improve your body image.”

In a series of different experiments done in the late 1980s and the 1990s, Dr. James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas–Austin, and his colleagues also found journaling to have several health benefits. As the American Psychological Association explained in a review article, Pennebaker discovered that writing about stressful or traumatic experiences helped people reduce their visits to the doctor, have better immune system responses, and even improve their blood pressure.

This research really resonates with Shevawn Armstrong, who’s studying for a master’s degree in Leadership for Sustainability Education at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. Armstrong has been writing in a journal almost every day for more than 23 years, starting when she was a teenager.

Unlike me, Armstrong has always used the same-sized standard blank black book to record her thoughts. She has all of her journals, organized in chronological order, on shelves in the living room of her tiny home. Her journal pages often include to-do lists, calendar items, and meaningful phrases that she wants to remember.

“Journaling always feels like a way to get things out of my head so they don’t take up space, and a tool for processing my emotions,” Armstrong said. “The more I learn about adult education, [the more] I think that reflection is critical to the process of learning.”

Many Methods

“Whether you’re looking for peace, perspective, or a creative outlet, there’s a journaling method that might help,” Ingall wrote.

It’s true. You can keep a creative journal, a dream journal, an exercise journal, a food journal, a gratitude journal, a poetry journal, a travel journal, or another kind of journal. And you can write in it every day, once per week, or just sporadically when you feel like it or you happen to remember. That’s one of my favorite things about journaling: There’s no right way to do it.

If you want to get the most out of journaling, however, writer Julia Cameron, in her highly acclaimed book, “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity,” recommended doing what she referred to as “morning pages.” Cameron herself has published fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and even written musicals and directed one feature film. She credited her practice of morning pages with helping her through creative blocks. Morning pages are three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing you do each morning as soon as you wake up. The idea is to write anything and everything that comes into your head, with no censoring or judgment, “before [your] ego is awake.” Morning pages are Cameron’s version of morning meditation.

The moment that you feel you have run out of things to write is often when you hit pay dirt, Cameron explained in her book. You may be surprised by how much creativity will surface when you keep going. Cameron said that some of her best creative ideas have emerged from doing morning pages.

But even if the habit of writing three pages doesn’t yield a screenplay or the great American novel, Cameron insisted that it will help you clear your mind and improve your day.

Like Cameron, Dr. Beth Jacobs recommended spending three pages with your pen on the paper, or about 30 minutes, exploring your thoughts and venting your emotions. Jacobs is a clinical psychologist based in Chicago and the author of “A Buddhist Journal: Guided Practices for Writers and Meditators.” She believes following stream-of-consciousness writing with a few minutes of positive writing or reflective questions will help you get the most out of the journaling experience.

Quick and Easy

Erin Stone, a health and life coach based in Ashland, Oregon, is an avid advocate of journaling, particularly a method called the “five-minute journal.”

This guided journal writing focuses on the extraordinary aspects of one’s day. It includes listing what you already feel grateful for, as well as what will help you make the day great. Stone said she routinely shares this simple and effective journaling tool with her clients with consistently positive results.

“Journaling is a great tool to get clear on [the] focus of the day, work through any conundrums that may have arisen, along with having the space and location to state … gratitude,” Stone said.

Stone said she benefits from the process as much as her clients.

“It’s really a lovely practice, which has made a huge difference in my anxiety-ridden mind,” she said.

What About a Dream Journal?

Dr. Timothy March, a chiropractor in Ashland, Oregon, whose focus is holistic whole-body health, became interested in keeping a dream journal 10 years ago in an effort to discover and learn more about himself. He wanted to get to know himself  “at the deepest level possible,” he said.

So March keeps a little book and pen next to his bed. Whenever he has a particularly striking dream, March writes it in his journal. He does this right when he begins to wake up, recording the dream with as much detail as possible. He uses this dream journal as a tool for his own assessment, to explore and pay attention to the “hidden meaning or deeper truth” of the symbolism revealed by his subconscious.

March has found his dream journal to be especially helpful during times when he has had intense or recurring dreams. When his dreams consistently repeat themselves, he knows that is a signal to pay attention, he said.

But journaling doesn’t need to be about exploring yourself on a deeper level. My friend Paula Lynam, an educator who’s also based in Ashland, is a nature-minded person. During the summer she tries to go camping every Thursday, visiting remote places in northern California, southern Oregon, and Washington state.

Lynam enjoys being quiet and alone and tuning into the natural world. So she keeps a nature journal, documenting and sketching the plants, birds, and animals that cross her path. She said that nature journaling isn’t only a record of her adventures. It also helps her pay attention and feel connected to the West Coast’s natural beauty.

A page from the nature journal Paula Lynam takes her while camping in Washington, Oregon, and California.
A page from the nature journal Paula Lynam takes with her while camping in Washington, Oregon, and California. (Paula Lynam)
Paula Lynam shows a page from the nature journal she takes her while camping in Washington, Oregon, and California
Paula Lynam shows a page from the nature journal she takes with her while camping. (Paula Lynam)

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I put the Van Gogh journal back on the shelf and opted for a less expensive blank book with roses on the cover. This one had unlined pages, so I would have room to draw. I couldn’t wait to brew myself a cup of green tea and start writing in it, which I did as soon as I got home. Just thinking about journaling makes me feel calmer, clearer, and more intentional. New journal tucked under my arm, I was flooded with happiness. Anything was possible. The blank pages beckoned.

How to Get Started

Perhaps you’re convinced that you should try journaling as well. So where do you begin?

1. Choose your journal.

You can use an app, an online program, or go old-fashioned and buy yourself a blank or lined-bound book to write in. If you’d rather use loose paper (journaling expert Julia Cameron recommended this), get yourself a lined pad or a ream of blank paper to get started. If you can’t bear the thought of writing, but you want to journal anyway, consider making daily voice recordings instead of written entries.

2. Gather your writing tools.

All you really need is a pen that you like, but it’s also helpful to have a sharpened pencil, some colored markers, and perhaps even some recent memorabilia (such as movie tickets or fortune cookie fortunes) to glue or tape into your journal.

3. Decide how often.

Make a plan for when you will journal. First thing in the morning or before bed each night? When you’re on your lunch break at work? Share your goal with a friend or relative and ask them to check in with you about it to help keep you on track.

4. Gather prompts.

Marelisa Fabrega, who runs the website, DaringtoLiveFully.com, offered 119 open-ended journaling prompts on her website (things such as “what scares you?” and “places you’ve enjoyed visiting”). Fabrega recommended keeping those prompts on slips of paper in a mason jar and picking one each day to inspire your journaling practice.

5. Have fun!

Remember, there’s no right way to journal, spelling doesn’t matter, and you get to write whatever you want. One sentence a day is as good as five pages. However you do it, it’s a wonderful practice to support your overall health and well-being. Enjoy it. Journaling should feel like an inspiration, not a chore.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author of “Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family.” A Fulbright awardee and mother of four, she has worked on a child survival campaign in West Africa, advocated for an end to child slavery in Pakistan on prime-time TV in France, and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional students in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at JenniferMargulis.net