I was born a worrier into a long line of worriers. As a child, I’d often lie awake at night, terrified that burglars would break into my house, or that I’d fail the upcoming test at school the next day. Now that I have a home and children of my own, I fret about the dozens of details required to keep our lives humming along, from packing lunches to meeting urgent deadlines at work.
Journaling as a Pressure Release Valve for Worry
I’ve learned that this anxious energy has to go somewhere, or it will spin wildly around in my body, spiraling down through my mind and tightening in my chest. In my early teen years, I discovered a pressure release valve for my worry: simply putting pen to paper. I would open up a spiral-bound notebook to a crisp, inviting, blank page and let my emotions tumble out of me in words, freely and without judgment, until I could breathe again.
I still use this practice today, more than two decades later, when I find myself stuck. Emptying my body of worry creates space for fresh ideas to emerge and gives me the clarity of mind to consciously direct my attention to the good things in life.
Journaling to Cultivate Optimism
Scientific research has found that no matter the level of optimism set by our genetics and environment, we can boost it with actions that retrain our brains to focus on what’s going well and what could go well in the future.
One of these actions is taking just two minutes per day to write down three things you’re grateful for. At a holiday craft market, I bought a small, handmade book that I designated as my happiness journal. It sits on my nightstand to remind me to record the joyful moments and little victories before I go to sleep.
At any given time, I find myself surrounded by a variety of the pleasant and the unpleasant -- in the news, at work, and at home -- but even on the toughest days, knowing that I’ll be documenting my gratitudes every night reminds me to zoom in on the good:
Walking in the sunshine with the family.
Writing on a weekday afternoon, with rain pounding the window.
Cuddling up to the kids on the couch and reading them a story.
Family. Nature. Art. Home. All of these things are so beautiful in their simplicity; none requires much time or money, and most are available to me all the time. Writing them down doubles my happiness by reliving the meaningful moments, and reading over them later gives me a clear picture of what I want more of. What else is there, really, besides these little moments of grace that make life worthwhile?
Though I’m a genetic pessimist, I’ve trained myself to become more and more optimistic by savoring even the smallest joys, like making myself a hot cup of tea before I start my work.
And I’m learning to expect more good things to happen, because I have so much evidence in my happiness journal that good things happen all the time.
Learning to Appreciate the Good Things in Life
Now I keep two journals, the one where I acknowledge and release my anxiety, and the one where I document my gratitudes. You could use one journal for both, if you like. In any case, journaling can be a powerful outlet for letting go of our worries and cultivating optimism, no matter what our nature. Through regular practice, even two minutes a day before we turn out the lights at night, we can train our brains to appreciate the good things in life -- and become more optimistic as a result.
Melia Dicker is a writer and co-host of Semi-Together, a podcast about having some of your life together all of the time, along with her sister, Gillian Burgess. On a recent episode, Choosing Optimism, they talk about the science-backed habits that cultivate a positive outlook. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
Melia lives in Jackson, Mississippi, with her husband and two young children, and by day, she is the Marketing Director at Creative Distillery. You can find her at @meliadicker on Twitter and Instagram, and @semitogether on Instagram.