It is common advice to keep a journal1. There are a number of benefits:

  1. The process of writing will help you understand and process what’s happening in your life at the moment.
  2. Revisiting your past writing will help you understand patterns in your life, especially your emotional life, and then solve any recurring problems moving forward.
  3. Re-reading from a temporal distance gives you perspective on what used to seem important, and then you can apply that same perspective to things you care about now. It gets you accustomed to taking the longer view.
  4. The emotional pleasures of re-reading: it is enjoyable to remember what you used to be like, what you used to care about. Getting to know your past self is like a more intense version of reading fiction, where you exercise your emotional capacity for shared joy, sympathy, and so on.

When I was younger I internalized this advice, and had a little notebook that I would write in from time to time. It’s taken me a while to realize that the way I was doing it didn’t give me the full benefits of the practice. When I was feeling angry or sad, and the notebook was close at hand, I would write in it as a form of emotional relief. The act of putting my feelings on paper helped relieve the terrible intensity: I felt that I was literally “pouring my feelings onto paper”, getting them out of my body and somewhere that I wouldn’t feel them as strongly2.

There are a few problems with this approach.

Selection Effects

The main problem is the selection effect. If I only write when I am unhappy, then the only feelings I write about are negative ones. I will therefore come to understand my negative emotions better than the others, I will become good at avoiding pain but unskilled at moving towards pleasure. There seems to be a fundamental asymmetry between pleasure and pain, where pain is more bad than pleasure is good, but here I think it’s harmful.

Why is this a problem?

It’s not obvious that this is a problem. After all, the fact that I’m in a bad situation means that something went wrong. Presumably the times when my life are going right don’t need investigation.

But there are a few reasons why it makes sense to interrogate the good times as well.

First, if I stop doing the bad things, it doesn’t follow that I’ll start doing the good things. For example, I might notice that when I staay at home and watch TV I tend to be unhappy, but that doesn’t tell me which of the infinitude of alternatives I tend to like doing.

Second, I suspect it’s much harder to “never become unhappy” than to “make unhappy periods relatively productive and short-lasting”. If I don’t record the successful coping attempts I won’t understand those patterns through the journaling practice.

Third, there may be causes X which lead to both good things AND bad things, and if I don’t understand that dynamic I’ll strip out pleasure as well. Staying out late feels like this – I may be tired the next day but there are obvious hedonic and social benefits.

Finally, and most vaguely, I have an optimism that the “natural levels” of good times – in both frequency and intensity – can be improved3.

But all this assumes that the current practice can lead me to understand my negative feelings. This may not be the case! If I have no “positive examples” I will look for aspects or causes that are common in unhappy situations, rather than those that are more common in unhappy situations than happy ones. For example, suppose I only write in my journal when I’m alone4. Looking back, I’ll notice that every time I was unhappy I was alone, and not consider the vast portions of my life that are alone and extremely happy.

All this relates to a larger belief I have, which is that Selection Effects Rule Everything Around Us. Forces within and without our control filter the world into the seen and unseen, and our ongoing efforts to understand the world can only incorporate the part of the world that we see. Someday I aim to write a longer post on this topic.

How to solve it

At first the solution seems simple: journal every day, or make an effort to journal when happy as well. This is straightforward and will probably work5. But there’s some nuance here which gets into the reasons that I think there’s a selection effect at all.

Journaling has a relatively neutral valence. It’s not that fun, but it’s not that bad either. So it would be unnatural – require effort – to switch away from something more fun in order to do it. Why would I want to interrupt fun in order to do something a bit “meh”?

More interestingly, negative emotions feel heavier or stickier – less transient – than positive ones and maybe more amenable to being understood or dissected at all. If I sit and write about a great sadness, it stays with me – it has enough substance to be looked at closely. Joy, elation, pride: these react like mist, they cannot be understood analytically without fading away. They don’t stay on the operating table long enough to be opened up.

Or maybe: my analytical lens has become biased over time from looking only at unhappiness.

Or maybe: the analytical lens by its nature tends to do this. It seems more natural to ask “are you sure you should feel X? maybe you should feel less X, or not feel X at all.” It does not always occur to me to ask whether I need more X.

I don’t know whether this is something I can change. Can I approach my positive feelings differently, in a way that lets me understand them better?

Doing it wrong

The second problem is that writing for emotional relief is not the same as writing for understanding!

I don’t have a deep theory of this but I suspect that writing for in-the-moment relief involves more certainty, more assignment of blame. It may involve distracting yourself or “wallowing”, which is a learned behavior to attract sympathy from yourself and others.

It’s become a commonplace that when a friend or partner tells you about a negative emotion you should ask: “are you unburdening yourself, or do you want to solve this?” These are different modes, and to the extent that journaling is like one side of a converation with yourself, it matters which mode you’re in.

You could model the ideal behavior as “unburden in the moment” and “solve in retrospect”, which has some logic to it. But future-you is limited to the evidence that you wrote down at the time, and it may be that what you wrote down is incomplete or misleading from an understanding perspective.

Here too I think the obvious solution is to journal more often, get practice at it.

Have some joy

All the discussion above has been so productive. Journaling as a practice to understand yourself so you can improve. But joy is worthwhile in its own right! It’s pleasurable to remember past pleasure in detail, and by neglecting to record what you enjoyed you are depriving your future self of that enjoyment.

Don’t be stingy with pleasure!

Common sense

So we’ve arrived back at the advice to journal every day, which is probably what everyone would have told me at the start. Unfortunately most good life advice sounds stupid. That’s just how it is.


A man all wrapped up in himself makes such a small bundle.

Unknown author.

I’ll close by noting that journaling itself (much less writing about how to journal) feels intolerably self-indulgent. A little bit of reflection seems okay. I should understand my goals and values in life, and how I can improve my pursuit of them. But every day?

The common defense is to consider it analogous to car maintenance: changing your oil is a necessary part of getting to work, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Our bodies and minds, too, are complex machines that we need to care for.

I don’t know if I agree with this, it feels unsatisfying. Maybe one issue is that it’s fairly clear when a car is running well but less so for ourselves. Fittingly, this is the kind of question that could be resolved by journaling positive experiences. That’s a nice way to end.

  1. What I’m doing here is public-facing writing, which is different. So this post is a little navel-gazing but not completely. 

  2. A question to investigate for later is how deep this metaphor goes, in the Metaphors We Live By sense. At a first pass: feelings are objects which live inside the body, expressing them in words (under some conditions?) moves them outside the body, and once they are outside the body they cannot be felt. 

  3. Analogous to my belief in using biological science to improve on human capability, not just to fix the wrongs. 

  4. This likely leads to a different set of issues, but we won’t go into it here. 

  5. This also solves the problems of “thin records”. A detailed temporal record would make it easier to know about causation, to remember what came first.