by Sharon Lippincott, Author & NAMW Advisory Board Member
How often have you heard the mantra “Your problems are your best friends,” or some variation thereof? I could fill several pages without stopping as I listed all the reasons we should rejoice in our tribulations because they are such valuable learning opportunities and that sort of thing. Indeed, I even believe most of those reasons.
A variation of this advice carries over into lifewriting wisdom. Yours Truly joins such notables as Dr. James Pennebaker, Univ. of Texas Psychology Department chair and author of Writing to Heal, and Linda Joy Myers, Founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers and author of The Power of Memoir, in extolling the virtues of using stories about dark moments to give balance to a memoir or collection of vignettes. Experts agree that journaling or writing about traumas and difficulties is helpful for instilling insight, healing pain and anxiety, facilitating forgiveness and transforming lives.
Nothing in this post should be construed as negating that advice, but there is another side of that coin that has largely escaped notice. That’s the wisdom of “accentuating the positive.” Pennebaker’s initial research emphasized the value of writing about trauma, but as the years have passed, further research has shown that writing about happy events and memories has almost as much therapeutic value.
Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the Univ. of Pennsylvania and author of Authentic Happiness, has spent decades doing research on the health and other benefits of optimism and happiness. His research shows that these traits can be learned, and while he does not advocate denial, he does demonstrate that there is tremendous value in accentuating the positive.
To greatly oversimplify the vast sea of research in these areas, the results indicate that it is indeed beneficial to face problems and challenges squarely, and to do so with an optimistic attitude that it will turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It is equally valuable to write about our successes and moments of joy, and focus introspective attention on exploring what we have been doing right and looking for additional opportunities to do more of that.
If you don’t feel up to writing the tough stuff, don’t beat yourself up. Just keep writing. Write happy memories. Write fiction. Write anything at all, but do write — just for the health of it.
Celebrate success! Celebrate joy and happiness! Celebrate them in writing and refer back to them when skies and spirits are dark.
Write now: a story about one of your crowning successes or moments of great joy. Write about love and achievement. Wring your memory dry on this topic.