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I've kept a journal nearly every day for three decades now. What began as a high-school English assignment has become my life story and now fills dozens of volumes. Onto these pages go my children's funny stories and countless pep talks. My journal is where I make the world make sense. The less sense it makes, the more I write. I'm writing a lot these days.
Something as simple as taking pen to paper can inspire creativity, defuse stress and make you grateful and glad to be alive. In fact, research shows that pouring your heart out on paper can boost immune function and has been linked with improvements in such diseases as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. "People who write about emotional upheavals in their lives show benefits almost across the board in terms of health problems," says James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., professor of psychology at University of Texas, in Austin, and author of Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (Guilford Press, 1997).
Here's how to begin keeping a journal of your own:
1. The medium matters. Although any old scrap of paper is fit for recording your thoughts, it's easier to keep everything in one place. Look for a journal that feels good in your hands, opens flat and won't intimidate you with its fanciness. Or try electronic journal-keeping (a variety of versions are available on ZDNet).
2. Make it a habit. To start, don't expect yourself to write daily. Aim for several times a week. "Find a place to be by yourself, and don't worry about spelling or anything else," says Pennebaker.
3. Filling the blank page. When your thoughts don't flow, tell the story behind a favorite snapshot or write a letter you'll never send. In her journal-writing workshops, Rita D. Jacobs, author of The Way In: Journal-Writing for Self Discovery (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2001), has students write about anything that comes to mind for eight minutes. Their first sentence might be, "I have no idea what I'm going to write," says Jacobs, but several minutes into it, they don't want to stop.
4. From here to posterity. Surprisingly, journal keeping makes you a better person. The insights gleaned from journals can reveal personality traits, help you cope with crisis or untangle longstanding conflicts with a relative or friend. Finally, journals can become our personal emissaries to the future. Wherever yours ends up, you have given the world something no one else can: your own life, well-observed.
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