Writing a regular diary is not just a way of recording life’s memories, it can also be a potent tool for aiding wellbeing.
From Samuel Pepys and Anne Frank to wine-guzzling Bridget Jones, the diarist is a powerful cultural figure.
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But while many of us may have dabbled in journal-keeping at some point, whether as a school project or a vessel for our teenage angst, chances are it’s slipped by the wayside as the busyness of modern life takes over.
Yet taking the time to record your thoughts and feelings, daily in longhand, could prove to be a potent tool for aiding wellbeing.
Why diary writing is important
A study at the University of California found that writing down your thoughts and feelings can help the brain regulate emotions, particularly for men who may find it tricky to vocalise them.
Documenting our lives also gives us a record of the past that is for us alone, rather than one that’s publicly displayed on social media.
Re-reading diary entries can offer us perspective on situations, and clarify our thinking.
You don’t have to be a Pepys-esque wordsmith to take advantage of the benefits, either.
Scrapbook-style diaries or line-a-day journals can be useful ways of keeping track, even if you’re not comfortable writing whole pages.
You may have also heard of ‘gratitude journals’, where the writer records what has made them happy or grateful each day or week and in doing so, increases their levels of happiness and wellbeing.
We talk to three committed diarists of different ages about how their daily hobby has helped shaped their lives.
Emily Linden, 30, PhD student, activist and founder of The UnSlut Project
I’ve kept diaries on and off since high school, as a crutch through difficult times.
Now I’m older, and my life has felt more comfortable, I haven’t been so disciplined about it, but I still have one I write a few lines in each day.
I first revisited my teenage diaries after hearing about a 15-year-old called Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide after suffering from sexualised bullying.
It struck a chord because she was from the same US state as me; her family were Irish like mine, and I had been through a similar experience at that age.
It got the gears turning in my mind and I went and dug out my old diary. I had memories of being labelled a ‘slut’ in high school and, over the years, had come to believe that I somehow deserved it.
But when I opened up my diary, what I read stopped me in my tracks.
Reading back, I could see that a sexual encounter I had with my boyfriend – which triggered my bullying – was clearly something I had been coerced into.
I was shocked at how skewed my memory of the event had become. It was a big lesson in how your memories can deceive you.
In 2013 I decided to publish my diaries online, as I felt they could be a valuable tool for others. I wanted to show teenage girls that they weren’t alone; that they didn’t deserve what was happening to them, and that they could overcome it.
The outpouring of other women’s stories and confessions that my diaries sparked was heartrending. I realised that I’d potentially started a whole movement.
Now I run The UnSlut project which campaigns against sexual bullying, as well as working on my PhD. We’ve managed to crowdfund a documentary, and I speak at events around the world.
Rachel Colmer, 65, a counsellor, who advocates 'diarying' as a developmental tool
I started my diaries when I was ten years old. A family friend bought me an Enid Blyton diary for Christmas so I thought I’d give it a try, and I was immediately hooked.
I’ve written one every day since – for over 50 years, in total!
For me, it’s a way of coping with emotions. You’re literally dumping them on the page.
I only began to fully understand its potency when I went through a difficult divorce in my early 30s.
A situation like that can make you feel very isolated, and my diary was a safe space to let out all my emotions.
I’m now a trained counsellor, and diarying is one of the exercises I use with clients.
It helps people become more self-aware, and dissipates strong emotions such as anger and guilt.
You don’t even need to go back and read over what you’ve written, as sometimes you might reveal things in there that you don’t want to revisit.
I never, ever re-read mine – the power is all in the writing. My diary is the last thing I do, every single day. I get into bed, sit up and write my page.
I think it’s so important to write about things on the day they happened, because the next morning your emotions may have changed.
When I had young children I’d sometimes leave it til the next day because I was so tired, and I always regretted it.
I’d urge everyone to set aside five or ten minutes a day to write a diary. It’s like doing exercise – you just have to make time for it. You’ll soon see what a powerful developmental tool it can be.
Claire Hamilton, 40, a political reporter, whose diaries include mementoes
I can’t even remember why I started writing a diary. I was only eight at the time. But once I started, I had this strong feeling that I didn’t want to give it up.
What’s interesting about my diaries is that I’ve always stuck lots of different mementoes in them, such as gig tickets and festival wristbands.
Now I work as a BBC reporter, I tend to keep items such as press passes for interviewing politicians – I feel they’re items of historic significance, which will be interesting to look back on one day.
During my teenage years, I made a decision to only write when I was in a good mood – I’d been re-reading some entries and thought the ones where I just whinged about P.E. were so boring!
And if nothing interesting had happened, then I’d jot down a description of someone I knew instead – I actually wrote about my now-husband, when we were first friends 20 years ago, and it’s so funny to read back.
When I was at university, we didn’t have social media and people didn’t take many photos, so I was the only one who documented everything we were doing.
One of my friends would refer to my diaries as ‘the collective mind’ – people would want to know what we were doing on that exact day a year or two years ago, and I’d dig the page out and tell them.
My diaries are the only things I’ve specified in my will. I’ve divided them up into different time periods, which will go to different friends.
I think they’ll be interesting for my children to look over once I’m gone, too.
Keeping a diary is just such a lovely thing to do, for your own memories. I’m so glad I did it!
How to start a diary
Enjoying the benefits of keeping a diary doesn’t have to be a huge task. Here are our top tips for getting started.
- Invest in a quality book that you’ll want to write in. Sitting down to record your thoughts in a beautiful leather-bound journal will feel more of a treat than scribbling in an old notebook.
- Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Don’t start worrying about your writing not being good enough or your sentences ineloquent. Nobody ever has to see this - it’s all for you!
- Experiment with what works for you. Try doodling your thoughts, or sticking in mementoes, like Claire does.
- Five or ten minutes at the end of the day is the best time to write. Add it to your evening routine, like brushing your teeth.
- Don’t block yourself. If there are things you’re embarrassed or scared to write about, just remember: you don’t ever have to go back and read it. It’s the act of writing that’s cathartic.
- Enjoy it! Your diary should be a safe space from the world, away from screens and electronic devices, where you can be at one with yourself and your thoughts. If it starts to feel like a chore, reassess why you are doing it.
Looking for more journalling inspiration? Consider starting your own bullet journal. What is bullet journalling? Our handy guide explains it all and you can find all your notebook needs in our best bullet journal guide.