Journaling to Improve Your Relationship

Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little Change a Lot explores the importance of journaling to reach your goals, increase happiness, and boost the longevity of your relationships. What Wiseman found and explains to the reader is that it takes just a few minutes of writing to drastically change your thoughts. I would not call Wiseman’s findings mental “hacks”, but rather simple tools that help boost self awareness and shift your mental focus. Our culture has become obsessed with finding “hacks” to simplify life and produce desired changes without much effort.  To me the idea of mental hacks misses the point.  The real idea is to become more self aware, so that you can consciously decide to change your attitude and behavior as opposed to adopting some hack to force you to change and achieve some quick goal.  While Wiseman’s journaling suggestions are short a and quick, they cannot be described as hacks because they require a level of mental focus to be useful.

 

Wiseman outlines this simple three day journaling activity to help improve your relationship:

 

“Day 1:
     Spend ten minutes writing about your deepest feelings about your current romantic relationship.  Feel free to explore your emotions and thoughts.

Day 2:

     Think about someone that you know who is in a relationship that is in some way inferior to your own.  Write three important reasons why your relationship is better than theirs.

Day 3:

Write one important positive quality that your partner has, and explain why this quality means so much to you.
Now write something that you consider to be a fault with your partner and then list one way in which this fault could be considered redeeming or endearing.”

 

What really surprises me is that Wiseman openly encourages us to compare our relationship to others.  I grew up playing basketball and learning about John Wooden, and one of Wooden’s key philosophies was that you can never compare yourself to another person.  According to Wooden’s philosophy, comparing your relationship to another persons relationship is useless since your background will differ, and since you can not control the actions or fortunes of the others.  Wiseman however is asking us to compare and specifically think of a relationship that we deem to be negative.  The purpose of this reflection is to have us think about ways in which the other relationship is not going well, and then identify why ours is going well.  What we could see is something that we want to avoid in our relationship, or we may see that our relationship is also filled with the same negative qualities. While Wooden may still be correct, the exercise of day two does help build self awareness.

 

The most powerful day in my opinion is day three of Wiseman’s relationship journaling.  I believe that many people in relationships work hard to avoid thinking of the characteristics they do not like in their partner.  There is definitely an idea in our culture that things are ok if your ignore the bad and only focus on the positive.  In relationships I believe this idea may be even stronger.  It can be scary to think about the qualities we do not like in our partner, but when we think about how those qualities build up to the entire person, and why they align with the person we love, it can boost our feelings for them and reduce the importance of that negative quality.  Wiseman helps us to see past the single negative quality by placing it in a more positive light.

 

Ultimately Wiseman’s ideas for increasing the longevity of our relationships through journaling helps us gain more awareness in our relationship and focus our thoughts and energy towards the love we feel for the other person. He encourages us to venture into scary places thinking about the negative quality of our relationship and the relationships of others.  By doing so we can see how to better our relationships and what pitfalls we wish to avoid.

My Luck Journal

I decided to purchase Richard Wiseman’s book, 59 Seconds, after I listened to him have a conversation on one of my favorite podcasts, Smart People Podcast.  On the show Wiseman discussed luck and neuroscience, and I was fascinated throughout the entire episode.  Afterwards, I knew I wanted to buy one of Wiseman’s books, especially since there was a piece of advice from the show that I was able to implement immediately.  Wiseman talked about creating a “luck diary” to increase your awareness and focus on the lucky and positive parts of your life, and he discussed the benefits that could come with the increased awareness and positivity.  Once I dove into 59 Seconds I came across a section about gratitude, and I saw a more in depth explanation of the importance of my small luck diary.

 

Regarding a study on gratitude Wiseman wrote, “those expressing gratitude ended up happier, much more optimistic about the future, and physically healthier – and they even exercised more.”  The idea of the study was to ask people to journal for a few minutes each week on various topics. One group wrote about things that annoyed them, another group journaled about events and things that happened in the day, and the third group reflected on things they were grateful for. The human brain learns to adapt to its environment and to stop noticing the things that are always around.  Wiseman argues that this loss of conscious awareness occurs even with our own happiness leaving us without a sense of appreciation for the opportunities, luck, and positive events around us as they begin to feel common place and normal. Journaling about luck brings those positive moments back to the forefront of our minds, and helps us remember and be aware of the positives.

 

I don’t know that my luck journal has made me happier, healthier, or helped me exercise more, but I do enjoy the reflective nature of the process.  I enjoy sitting on my bed each night and thinking about what I am  grateful for or what lucky things happened during my day.  Often times I had forgotten about how much went on in my day until I finally sit down and focus to remember each little event that I could describe as a lucky moment.  I enjoy remembering the luck and the positive moments, but I also enjoy working my memory and sifting through all that happened in a day.

The Benefit of Journaling and Writing

In his book 59 Seconds Richard Wiseman continually returns to the idea of writing and journaling when trying to overcome obstacles, become more creative, and reach ones goals.  Towards the beginning of the book Wiseman discusses a study in which participants were asked to either talk to another person to express themselves, journal for a few minutes a few days a week, or just continue on as they always had while the experimenters examined them over long period of time.  The study found large benefits for those who spent their time writing as wiseman explains,

 

“Thinking can often be somewhat unstructured, disorganized, and even chaotic.  In contrast, writing encourages the creation of a story line and structure that help people make sense of what has happened and work toward a solution.  In short, talking can add to a sense of confusion, but writing provides a more systematic solution-based approach.”

 

The subjects of the experiment had all experienced a traumatic event in their lives, and those who spent time writing through what happened, as opposed to those who had done nothing or talked to another about their feelings, found the most traction in getting to a new way of thinking about the traumatic experience.  I believe that this plays into every part of our lives and can make a big impact in how we are feeling on a day to day basis.  Wiseman returns to studies related to journaling throughout his book and explains how anticipating obstacles and writing about them can help one be more prepared for the journey towards their goals. He also writes about the benefits of journaling about the things you love about your loved ones as a way to move forward in your relationships with a more open and loving attitude.

 

One small area in which I have taken Wiseman’s advice for writing and applied it to my own life is in a simple journaling exercise that helps me be aware of the lucky things that happen in my life. I keep a luck journal and every night before I go to bed I reflect on what happened that day that was positive and in some way lucky for me.  This puts me in the right mindset as I prepare to go to sleep and helps me be thankful for the good things that have happened.  I can feel more content with my “luck” at the end of the day and instead of going to bed fearful for something that is coming up.

 

Throughout 59 Seconds Wiseman explains that writing, more than any other activity, helps build new connections in the brain.  It is slower than speaking, even when you are typing at a million miles per hour, and it forces your brain to slow down and be more considerate.  When writing you have the time to think an idea through and find the best way to communicate that idea.  This reinforces the thoughts and connections you had already developed, and gives you a new chance to combine thoughts and ideas and to find new connections.

Projections of Positivity

James Harmon published his book, Take My Advice, as a collection of letters written to him by creative artists, writers, and philosophers. Some of the letters are very short, lasting only a page or two, and some of the letters are full essays.  Joe-Peter Witkin is one artist and photographer who supplied a short page-long letter for Harmon’s book.  His letter is all about perspective and interpretation, “Your life is the life of the world.”  Witkin uses this quote to explain that we get to choose how we want to see the world and assign meaning to the events that occur around us.  Witkin continues, “If your life is of love, the world will love. Anything less and the world will continue to bleed.”

 

I truly believe that we all have something inside us that urges us to be the best version of ourselves possible, and pushes us to do positive things each day.  Each small positive action on its own may be meaningless, but I like to view each small positive action as a tiny grain of sand being added  to the good side of a giant balance beam.  The more positive acts that we put into the world, the more sand piles up on the good side, and when everyone begins to adopt this focus we pile on the positivity to outweigh the negativity.

 

The quote from Witkin shows that we can choose how we want to react to the world, but also how we want the world to react to us.  When we begin to see good things in other people as opposed to the negative, then we change how we act towards others which in turn causes others to act more positively towards us. When we adopt a softer and more compassionate view of reality, that reality will then begin to reward us by providing us with new opportunities and positive events.  Richard Wiseman in his book, 59 Seconds, would agree with Witkin, and he would push people a level further.  Rather than just deciding that one would like to see the world more positively, Wiseman would return to scientific research to encourage everyone to journal about the positive events in their life, or to write about what they enjoy in other people, their job, or their city.  This process forces the individual to process the good things and to truly evaluate their situation which drives the meaning to a new level in their mind.  When we turn to journaling we truly shape our mind to become more positive as we learn to avoid fixating on the negativity.

 

I will end this post with the anecdote that Witkin used to end his letter, “Recently, I heard a story of two men who worked carrying stones.  One of the men was asked what he was doing. He replied, “I carry stones.” When asked the same question, the other replied, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Seeing the Obstacles

Vera Countess von Lehndorff continues in her letter to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, to write about self confidence, striving towards our goals, and persevering through the difficult moments.  She writes, “Believe in yourself and be determined in all activities as you strive for your accomplishments.  Do not give in to despair in your weak moments or when you feel discouraged.”  In my mind  I can combine this viewpoint with Richard Wiseman’s discussion about visualizing success and journalism.  Wiseman in 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, wrote about the scientific backing to the advice in many self help books.  When it came to moving forwards towards our goals, the research shows that those who journal are more likely to reach their dreams.
Wiseman offers us a way to actualize the advice from von Lehndorff. Believing we can accomplish something is a huge first step, and it requires creativity and imagination to put us in a place where we see possibilities and a future that we want to pursue. We are able to look past the challenges that will hinder us as we journey towards our goals, and this can help us build more motivation for chasing those goals.  What Wiseman advises, is that we pause at the outset of our journey to examine and understand not just what goals we want to pursue, but what difficulties will arise in chasing those goals.  We will all struggle and hit obstacles, but if we have a plan for how we will overcome obstacles, then the challenges become less daunting when we actually face them.
Von Lehndorff encourages us to fight through despair, but does not offer any insight in preparing for or overcoming that despair.  She is aware of the fact that we will have moments when we are weak and unable to perform at our maximum level and seems to encourage us to push through the doubt with increasing action.  Following the science and journaling about not just the positive points of the journey, but how we will face the challenges will prepare us to fight through the difficult moments we may or may not be aware of.

Awareness in Action

In a later written to James Harmon for the book, Take My Advice, the late Murray Bookchin writes, “Our ideas must always be completed, fully thought out, and richly informed by a knowledge of the past.  To separate oneself from the past, to maintain a sense of mere nowness, to deny what reason has to give us, as well as intuition, and most dangerously to leave ones thoughts unfinished, is to risk the grave dangers of manipulation and ignorance.” This quote speaks deeply to me about the importance of awareness and presence in our daily lives.  Bookchin would argue that we must develop a sense of connection in our lives that unifies us with the world around us in multiple ways.  We must be aware of our surroundings and current situations, but we must also be aware of our past and how our past influences our actions today.

I frequently focus on self awareness and for a long time I have worked to cultivate my own thoughts and ideas about the planet away from the television, but I never put things in the perspective of Bookchin.  The television according to Bookchin, isolates us in a space that is neither past nor present, it is a suspended reality where  we give up our thought and allow outside forces to shape us.  Our unique background, our independent existences, and our individual thoughts are pushed aside for a vision of life created by others.  In this quote, the idea that people are influenced by television is pushed beyond the simple and benign world of advertising influences and driven to a perspective of people being shaped by the television they watch.  When we abandon our complete thoughts of the past and fail to analyze our current situation, we open ourselves up to be manipulated by another.  We become easily influenced and accept one perspective as our ticket out of ignorance.

I think that Bookchin would encourage in depth journaling as a way to process the events that happen to us, and help us begin to build an awareness of the world.  This aligns with many of the ideas that Richard Wiseman presents in his book 59 Seconds in which he describes the importance of journaling and writing as reflective exercises.  Writing according to Wiseman provides a chance for the brain to systematically organize and express information.  This systematic approach to reviewing our thoughts and actions helps us build awareness and create new connections in our lives.

Don’t Be Afraid

I have thought a lot about fear recently, and revisiting the sections I highlighted when I read James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, has helped me approach fear from multiple perspectives.  In Harmon’s book the photographer Horst writes, “Don’t be afraid. One learns through pain, and suffering.  Patience helps!” His quote explains his thoughts on the difficult and painful parts of life that we all strive to avoid.
What I have come to notice with failure is that I am not afraid of the act of failing at something, but I am afraid of the consequences that follow failure.  I think this is an important distinction to make.  I am not afraid of what I can control with a given situation and its result, but I am afraid of the consequences that will follow in the form of other people’s reactions to my failure.  On a second and deeper level, I am for some reason, afraid of hard work. Whenever I get a great idea in my head I can go crazy with what I want to do and how fun it would be to actualize my idea, but then the realization of how much work it will take often paralyzes me.  I have no problem working hard, I graduated Cum Laude, but the idea of additional work in an already busy life becomes overwhelming.
I think that Horst would advocate for me to have patience and plan my goals out over a long time so that the work becomes less daunting.  The problem I have with this idea is the fear of working hard with something, only to find out halfway or two thirds of the way to my goal, that I want something else.  I don’t want my hard work to accidentally steer me away from what I want and into something I had not intended.  Patience and a long term goal in this sense can be something to fear itself.
Richard Wiseman in his book, 59 Seconds: Think a Little Change a Lot, does offer a solution to this dilemma.  Wiseman reviewed popular self-help and advice books to see if any of their suggestions had real scientific backing.  What he found in conquering fear and chasing goals is that those who journal are more likely to reach their long term goals.  He would combine Horst’s idea of patience with a level of self-awareness. Wiseman’s advice is to be honest about what you want and why, and then examine what you could to do get where you want to go. Along the way everyone will face obstacles, and Wiseman says that spending time journaling about how you will overcome those obstacles will help you understand the difficult parts and plan ahead. This way, when you do hit periods of turbulence and hard work, you don’t need to be afraid. Instead of fear of hard work, I can journal to understand what kinds of hard work I can expect and how I will solve problems to mitigate the hard work.  This focus can give me more confidence and reduce the fear of consequences and the fear of hard work.

Art

Bruce Benderson talks about living a full life, even if others are critical of the way you live, in his letter to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice.  The quote from Benderson that I highlighted is, “Art is the radical decision to enjoy yourself at all cost.” When I reflect on this quote what I love is the idea of having a craft (drawing, writing, singing, bowling, etc…) and fully embracing and enjoying myself in the moment of executing a craft.  Benderson encourages us to think of our art as play, which to me means that we are always willing to try something new, change our approach, and look at things from new perspectives, because in the end our goal is not success as outsiders may define it, but the goal instead is a fullness that comes from expanding ones talent.

In his message is the idea that we can work our way forwards in our art or craft by remembering what it is we enjoy about the craft, and what pushed us to begin the craft.  I think we can also take this message and apply it to other areas of our life. Reminding ourselves what we love about our loved ones, the city we live in, and the job we have may help us appreciate those things.  I just finished a book called 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot written by Richard Wiseman. In his book he writes about the scientific backing to strategies, ideas, and myths that are popular in self-help communities. What he pulled from scientific literature on happiness is the idea that people who sit down and write out their thoughts about what they love in another person or what they are thankful for in their life tend to be happier and have stronger relationships.

I think we can combine these two ideas and start to develop a greater appreciation for the life and craft that we have. We can focus on why we do what we love to do, and what we enjoy from the jobs we do to sustain ourselves and family.