Several years ago, James Pennebaker had students write for 15 minutes a day, over three days, about the most upsetting experience of their lives, while a control group wrote about their daily activities. Those who wrote about the upsetting experience were found to have medium to long-term improvements in their psychological and physical health, after a brief dip in mood. Pennebaker (1997) has summarized this work. Laura King (2001) had participants write about their ideals and future goals, instead of the past, and her subjects obtained the same benefits. For different reasons, Edwin Locke and Gary Latham examined the consequences of personal goal setting programs in industrial and organizational settings. Such programs have been found to enhance individual productivity by more than 10% and their work is discussed in detail in their 2013 book.
For these reasons, and others, with a group of other scientists, I have developed programs designed to step people through the process of articulating their past experiences (Past Authoring), current personality structure, faults, and virtues (Present Authoring), and visions for the future (Future Authoring).
The Past Authoring program asks participants to break their lives down into seven epochs, to identify and write briefly about six significant experiences in each epoch and, finally, to choose and write in detail about their ten most crucially important lifetime experiences.
The Present Authoring programs use the Big Five personality model to help participants identify their personality faults and weaknesses, by selecting self-representative adjectives from lists of negative or positive traits; by writing about memories associated with those adjectives; and by engaging in strategic planning about how the faults or virtues could be rectified or capitalized on, respectively, now and in the future.
The Future Authoring program asks participants to consider people they admire, and to think about important life domains such as relationships, career goals, educational aspirations, use of drugs and alcohol, non-career activities, and health, before writing for 15-20 minutes about the future they believe would be best for them, as well as the negative future that might occur if their bad habits ran out of control. After that, participants are asked to step themselves through a nine-part process designed to help turn the vision created in part one into an implementable and well-thought through plan.
We tested the effect of the Future Authoring at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Holland. Academically struggling students at McGill increased their grades by 25%, and decreased their drop-out rates from 30% to zero. At Erasmus University, 1200 business students experienced the same results, increasing their academic performance by 25%, and decreasing their dropout rate by 30%. We think that participants benefit because the careful specification of future goals increases positive emotion, which is generally experienced when progress towards valued goals is observed, and decreases negative emotion, which is heightened when the meaning of past, present and future events remains unspecified and uncertain, in a way that I have written about in my 1999 book Maps of meaning.
If you would like to know more about personal writing and the programs my colleagues and I have developed to help structure it, please e-mail me at jordanbpeterson [at] gmail.com
King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 798-807.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (Eds.). (2013). New developments in goal setting and performance. New York: Routledge.
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8, 162-166.
Peterson, J. B. (1999). Maps of meaning: The architecture of belief. London: Routledge.