Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Find that Silver Lining

One key to unlocking health benefits from writing is to explore multiple points of view to find hidden benefits in upsetting or dismal circumstances. While this may seem intuitively true, as is increasingly the case, empirical evidence backs up common sense. A 2003 study by Campbell and Pennebaker found a correlation between the use of pronouns and subsequent frequency of doctor visits by research subjects. Pronoun use is an indicator of varying points of view, and subjects who explored more points of view had fewer doctor visits.

These are not isolated results. The Internet is rife with references to a connection between an optimistic point of view and improved health. Martin Seligman wrote a whole book, Learned Optimism to help people learn to adopt an optimistic point of view. While he wasn’t specifically studying the effect of writing, his recommendations can certainly be put to good use in expressive writing.

Here’s a quick way to unearth barrels of optimistic points of view in a short time:
  1. Draw two lines down the center of a sheet of paper, dividing the sheet into three columns — or make a three-column table in a text document.
  2. Jot down a list of significant memories of things that happened in the left column. These may be positive, neutral or negative. This is an especially powerful exercise if you follow a theme while making the list.
  3. In the center column, note the outcome of the event. What did it lead to? Don’t write a story here, just brief reminders.
  4. In the right column, list some positive outcome that resulted from the event. Even if you think that event was so evil it couldn’t possible have born any blessings, dig deeper until you find that silver lining.
That’s it. There’s your list in the right-hand column. You don’t have to use the center column; it’s just interesting to compare the two and see how often the positive outcome is the obvious one. This is an especially helpful exercise to do when you are beginning a memoir or feeling stuck with one.

Here are a couple of examples to help prime your pump:

MemoryObvious OutcomePositive Outcome
Rejected by HarvardWent to MSUGraduated debt-free
Ignored by fatherFelt rejected, always looking for father figuresLearned to be emotionally self-reliant, self-validating. STRONG!

You can build on discoveries you make in lists like this. For example, graduating debt-free may have allowed you to begin saving and investing and gave you the capital you needed to start your own business and become the tycoon you are today. And you weren't weighed down by your father's disapproval because he didn't listen to your plans. Or something like that. You learned to find your own sources of validation.

Seeing positive outcomes in front of your eyes makes them even more real and potent. Give it a try!

Write now: set up a page and list a dozen memories to explore. Select a couple of the more compelling items and spend five or ten minutes writing about them in more detail. Stick with it as long as you like.
Graphic by Frans van den Dungen

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