Article Reviews: Tara Parker-Pope’s
Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times articles, “Writing Your Way to Happiness” and “Creating a New Mission Statement,” are a pair of terrific explorations into the power of personal/expressive writing to help you do everything from gain a more positive outlook to boosting your memory to exercising more to getting better grades. Even Parker-Pope acknowledges that this might sound a bit like pie in the sky self-help nonsense, but it’s grounded in some pretty impressive research.
Let’s start things off with, “Writing Your Way to Happiness”—a fascinating piece with deeply encouraging conclusions. Here’s the long and the short of it: If you’re willing to take the time—say, maybe 15 minutes a day—to keep a journal or diary where you actively focus on and (re)edit your own personal narrative, you will not only (hopefully) find that your positivity and personal responsibility improves on the page, but also throughout the rest of your life.
I know this is certainly true for myself. Whenever I’m stuck on a problem or a negative streak or begin feeling overwhelmed, I almost always find that spending time writing (venting) in my diary is just what I need to pull me out of my funk.
According to Parker-Pope,
Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory.
The results of these studies—hailing from institutions like Duke and Stanford—show both short-term and long-term benefits to expressive writing. Parker-Pope illustrates several examples of these positive results throughout her article, but I’ll just offer one of them here as illustration:
…researchers focused on African-American students who were struggling to adjust to college. Some of the students were asked to create an essay or video talking about college life to be seen by future students. The study found that the students who took part in the writing or video received better grades in the ensuing months than those in a control group.
The important part here, as this example suggests, is not necessarily the artistic medium—it could be writing, video, or perhaps even other art forms—but the focus on self-reflection and the crafting (and editing) of an honest personal narrative.
And this leads nicely into Parker-Pope’s other recent (slightly older) article, “Creating a New Mission Statement.” “By creating a mission statement,” Parker-Pope explains—by engaging in thoughtful sessions of expressive writing—“people can begin to identify the underlying causes of [their] behaviors, as well as what truly motivates them to make changes.”
So, where to begin? If free-form brainstorming and diary-writing intimidates you or simply isn’t your “thing”—never fear! Parker-Pope is ready and comin’ to your rescue, offering the following questions as a solid starting place:
- How do you want to be remembered?
- How do you want people to describe you?
- Who do you want to be?
- Who or what matters most to you?
- What are your deepest values?
- How would you define success in your life?
- What makes your life really worth living?
Then, she explains, once you’ve got a few of these questions answered (or at least well-brainstormed and doodled out), take what you’ve got and try to mold it into a more cohesive mission statement or personal narrative. This isn’t something you’ll ever need to share with anyone else, but still, it should be something honest, full, and thoughtful. Rather than write about how you want to lose weight, Parker-Pope suggests, trying focusing instead “on a set of guiding principles that capture how you want to live your life.”
To get started making substantive changes in life, sometimes all it takes is dedicating the time to substantive self-reflection.