If you're like most of us, you've probably started a journal at some point or kept a diary when you were a kid. The 'Dear Diary' trope in the movie voiceovers gives a sense of childishness to the whole thing, while the other cultural identification with journaling is of historical figures who have their journals picked apart by historians on TV documentaries. The reality is that keeping a journal brings with it all sorts of significant benefits for your mental and emotional health.
While there is a fierce debate about what constitutes intelligence, which is often hijacked to drive down some very dark and unscientific paths, there is something that we can define as intelligence, relative to the individual, that we can understand as the quality of our thinking. One of the most important contributors to this is our capacity for language.
Language is a hallmark of more advanced intelligence in the animal kingdom, and it's something that our brains are especially well-adapted for. We think of language more in terms of its social function, but it is just as important for its ability to capture abstract feelings, emotions, or ideas in a way that can communicate them to others effectively.
While a journal is meant for your eyes only, writing down thoughts, emotions, or anything else that comes to mind--according to a University of Victoria study [PDF]--require you to extend your thinking to find the words that capture what you are trying to say. This can help build new neural connections, which can make you a better thinker overall.
Stress on its own isn't that big of an issue; it is even beneficial when taken in small doses like when you are running from a saber-toothed tiger or preparing for a big presentation. Stress is meant to focus our attention on what we feel is the most important thing we have to deal with when there are hundreds of other things that might distract us. Prolonged stress, however, can be outright poisonous and lead to depression, anxiety, and physical health consequences that can take years off of one's life.
Sometimes, all you need to do to relieve stress is to talk about it, and journaling is precisely that, only you are talking to yourself. It can help you manage the emotional fallout from a stressful experience or event in a way that thinking about it for prolonged stretches never could. Sometimes writing about the events of a particularly stressful day can unintentionally reveal what is actually causing you stress, which sometimes isn't what you think it is. One study has tied a three to five times a week journaling habit for several months to an improvement in health outcomes for conditions commonly tied to stress, such as high blood pressure.
The word 'mindfulness' seems to be everywhere right now, with all sorts of apps and videos on YouTube offering to help people achieve this ephemeral state of being. It isn't as New Age-y as all of that though, it actually finds its roots in most religions in one form or another, but is mainly associated with Buddhist traditions.
What mindfulness means is to actively process your thoughts, feelings, and emotions in the moment in which they are happening in a thoughtful, honest, and accepting manner that does not try to judge the 'rightness' of the thought or feeling, just that it is what you are experiencing or thinking at that moment. This process has been shown to have a strong connection to one's feelings of happiness and is an important tool in managing one's emotional and mental well-being. Fortunately, this is pretty much exactly what you have to do while journaling, so journaling confers many of the same positive benefits as things like mindfulness meditation.
Managing Emotional Health
Hot off the heels of mindfulness is the improvement in one's emotional health. Emotional health is all about recognizing and managing one's emotions in a healthy way, so once you've begun to identify how you are feeling--that's the mindfulness part--you can begin to see what is making you feel anxious or depressed, but also what makes you happy.
Identifying the causes and triggers of these emotions can be the key to improving your emotional health since the first step to improving anything is identifying what needs to be improved and how. If you identify things that need are making you depressed or anxious, you are already much closer to managing these emotions then someone who has no idea why they feel the way they do. If it is something that needs to be corrected, changed, or eliminated from your life, knowing what it is is the most important part of that process.
On the other hand, one of the more difficult things for humans to do sometimes is to focus on those things that make us actually happy; not what makes us feel good in passing, but actually happy. By journaling about both experiences, you can better identify when something, like an addiction, isn't actually giving you the deeper sense of satisfaction you hope it will give you and identify those things that actually do give it to you. What's more, journaling about the things that make us actually happy allows us to appreciate them more; especially when it comes to relationships, which can suffer from neglect when our mind is distracted by other emotions.
Anyone who says they aren't the creative type is lying, just as anyone who says they are not the analytical type does the same. All humans are both of these things, depending on how much we use those specific parts of our thinking. They are like a muscle that needs working out, and journaling is a form of expressive writing that uses those parts of our brain essential to creative activity. While journaling may not seem like the same kind of writing that a novelist or poet does, both the novelist and the poet will be quick to correct you.
The greatest challenge of any expressive writing, whether its the creative kind or the journaling kind, is forcing oneself to sit down and start writing. The rust on the hinges of the door that is holding all of it in needs to be broken up, the door needs to be forced open, and whatever it was that was being kept holed up in the recesses of your unconscious and conscious mind must be let out.
The process for creating art and writing in a journal is essentially the same, and the experience gained from one translates to the other. That doesn't mean that journaling will teach you to paint, but if you are a painter, journaling is a good way to get that rusty door in one's mind opened up, which makes it easier for other things to come tumbling out. You don't need to be an artist to benefit from increased creativity, either, everyone from engineers to software developers to accountants can improve their work by being more creative in their approaches--though you can keep the jokes about 'creative accounting' in the journal.