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5 December 2018

How keeping a one-line-a-day diary gives life shape and meaning

If I abandon my diary for only a few days, it scares me how much I struggle to fill in the gaps. Our memories so quickly fail us.

By Sophie McBain

The first New Year’s resolution I have ever kept was not the result of hungover, guilt-ridden soul-searching but rather an impulse purchase from my local bookshop on 1 January 2018 of an attractive five-year, line-a-day diary.

My previous attempts at journalling have always ended prematurely. The diaries I tried to keep while at school were disasters. Either my diary was the most private document in the world, in which case most entries were such petty and neurotic accounts of playground disputes that they have become only more embarrassing with time. Or I wrote them in the hope they might be published in decades to come, and the entries were comically pretentious.

There are no such problems with my current diary, which allows for entries no longer than a tweet or a text message. There is no space for unnecessary detail. It also takes only a few minutes to write, making it the perfect journal for people with busy lives, short attention spans and limited self-discipline.

When I started the diary, I was still on maternity leave and my life felt like a blur of play dates and baby music classes and hours spent rocking a tiny, disgruntled human being to sleep. The days could drag, but the weeks flew by and it would have been easy to lose track of the everyday magic of watching a small baby grow into a curious, rambunctious toddler. Now many of my daughter’s milestones are memorialised, her first words, her first steps, her first birthday.

If I abandon my diary for only a few days, it scares me how much I struggle to fill in the gaps. Our memories so quickly fail us. Unrecorded, so much of our past disappears beyond reach. But keeping a diary makes even the most mundane day feel precious. There is always something that makes a day unique and noteworthy: an interesting conversation you had or article you read, the way you felt, the things you saw.

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When I feel dispirited or demotivated, I often make a note of it, but overall the diary tends to skew positive. There’s not space to capture everything that happened, and would my future self ever be interested to read about another squabble over the household mental load? I’ve never been good at maintaining a sense of perspective, but this daily editing process has helped. In fact, I’m convinced that keeping a diary has made me happier, more grateful and easier on myself.

I’m not alone in this. There’s a growing body of research exploring how keeping a diary can improve mental and even physical well-being. One area of research focuses on the benefits of expressive writing, that is writing about one’s thoughts and feelings. One of the leading researchers in this area is James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, who in a 1986 study asked university students to spend 15 minutes a day writing about upsetting and traumatic experiences. Those who did reported feeling healthier and were less likely than the control group to visit a doctor or take a sick day in the four months that followed.

Since then, dozens of studies have suggested that regular expressive writing can boost one’s mood and sense of well-being, alleviate anxiety, lower blood pressure, boost sporting and academic performance and could, under some circumstances, even lead to better health outcomes for people with serious illnesses such as cancer.

There are several possible explanations for why expressive writing is so beneficial. Is it because emotional expression is inherently therapeutic, and writing is a way of releasing repressed feelings? Or does writing help because it forces us to impose structure and order on our thoughts, helping us to gain new insight and perspective?

A different technique made popular thanks to the growing influence of positive psychology is keeping a regular gratitude journal. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the movement, led a study that asked participants to write down three things that went well, and describe why, every day for a week. Even six months after the study ended, those who kept the gratitude journal reported feeling happier.

My line-a-day diary is not a pure exercise in expressive writing, or a gratitude journal, though it contains elements of both. I’m also not sure I would have kept it all year if I’d started it with such virtuous intentions. Still, I would urge everyone to start one in 2019 – not because it’ll change your life, though it might – but because it’s such a pleasure to keep.

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special