Using journaling to find solutions

We sometimes continue in our well-worn grooves even though they haven’t served us for a long time. But then, we wake up and realize that we don’t feel good about our lives. We might even realize that we’ve been unhappy for a long time.

When that happens, pay attention. Stop, reflect, process. Journaling by writing in longhand in a notebook is my favorite tool here. Writing helps me gain critical distance and stay honest, and writing by hand slows me down and gives me time to think.

Set aside a chunk of time, maybe an hour, to think and write about how you are doing: What’s going on in your life (relationships, leisure, work…)? What parts of it do you like, and what do you dislike? What do you want your life to be like?

Include plenty of details here. If you’re bored at work, are you bored with all of it or certain parts? Is the feeling new, or has it been going on for a while? What would be exciting?

The next step is to identify ways to bring your life and the life you want closer to each other. What positive actions might you take? Should you seek out new friendships, volunteer for a charity, take more chances at work? Write out a plan. Keep it manageable, focusing on one or two specific actions at first. Don’t try to fix everything at once; you’ll get overwhelmed. Be kind to yourself.

Changing what doesn’t work is important. But happiness isn’t only about the objective content in your life; it’s also about your expectations and the story you tell yourself about your life.

So explore your expectations: What do you want your life to be like? Part of the problem here is that we compare our lives to that of other people and wish our lives would be more like theirs. But we don’t actually consider their whole lives. We just focus on the cool parts — exotic vacations, marathon finish lines, romantic proposals — because that’s what we see on social media over and over again. A Facebook friend of mine posts stunning beach pictures from the Bahamas whenever I’m heading out to shovel more snow. It makes the snow feel heavier and colder and, every time, I wish my life were more like his.

But of course, other people deal with laundry, cranky weather, and annoying colleagues too. They just don’t post pictures of it on social media. And so, sometimes the problem isn’t our lives but our unrealistic standard of comparison. My Facebook friend isn’t in the Bahamas every time I shovel snow. I checked and he’s there one week a year. That leaves 51 weeks of normal life for him too.

Sometimes, improving our lives really is about taking action — applying for a new job or getting out of a bad relationship. But sometimes it’s more about changing our thinking. When I reflect on my week, do I notice the laundry and the angry work emails or my beautiful Saturday hike and my good talk with mom? They are equally real, but I can choose which I make the central theme of the story. And my choice makes a difference in how I feel about my life.

Finally, a caution: If somebody’s just in a rut, the sort of changes that I outline here are great. But don’t confuse ‘being in a rut’ with clinical depression (warning signs here). We can’t snap ourselves out of clinical depression with a better attitude and positive changes. I wish it were so easy! If you think clinical depression is a possibility, please don’t worry about improving your attitude; just seek professional help.

Here’s a great piece by Chris Winfield on the power of journaling and the value of writing longhand. More from me on how our thought patterns can make us less happy here and, to balance that, a piece on the danger of too much faith in positive thinking.

Originally published at