Manchester BABCP conference: disagreeing with Jamie Pennebaker - writing can be used with positive experiences too (ninth post)
Last updated on 8th September 2010
Yesterday I wrote a post "Disagreeing with Jamie Pennebaker - writing can help past, present & future concerns". I ended it with the words "In tomorrow's post I'll argue that therapeutic writing (although not so much expressive writing) is also potentially beneficial when the focus is on positive experiences as well". In his Manchester conference talk last month Jamie was very clear that writing was not therapeutically useful when the focus is on positive experience. I assume that he meant that expressive writing with it's emphasis on writing "deepest thoughts and feelings" about a subject isn't useful. I can't imagine that Jamie isn't aware of the extensive and growing research literature showing that other forms of writing definitely are helpful when the focus is on positive experience. My concern is that he didn't make this clear in his lecture and that many of his audience will have gone away with the "expert's" words ringing in their ears and assume that writing about positive experiences should be avoided. What a pity!
In fact I would go further than just "forms of therapeutic writing focusing on positive experiences can definitely be helpful" to "forms of therapeutic writing can definitely be helpful when focusing on all three time periods - past positive experiences, current appreciations, and future imagined positive possibilities". So writing can help across all three of the top "positive" sections of the following diagram (as well as across all three of the lower "negative" sections):
I'll take these three upper sections in turn. What evidence is there that a focus on past positive memories is therapeutic? In an earlier post "Writing for health & wellbeing" I described Burton & King's 2004 research study "The health benefits of writing about intensely positive experiences" which instructed participants "Think of the most wonderful experience or experiences in your life, happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music, or suddenly ‘‘being hit'' by a book or painting or from some great creative moment. Choose one such experience or moment. Try to imagine yourself at that moment, including all the feelings and emotions associated with the experience. Now write about the experience in as much detail as possible trying to include the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that were present at the time. Please try your best to re-experience the emotions involved. (On the second and third days of writing, these instructions included the sentence, ‘'You may either write about the same experience as yesterday, or you may choose a new one.'')." The abstract of this paper read "In a variation on Pennebaker's writing paradigm, a sample of 90 undergraduates were randomly assigned to write about either an intensely positive experience (IPE) (n=48) or a control topic (n=42) for 20 min each day for three consecutive days. Mood measures were taken before and after writing. Three months later, measures of health center visits for illness were obtained. Writing about IPEs was associated with enhanced positive mood. Writing about IPEs was also associated with significantly fewer health center visits for illness, compared to controls. Results are interpreted as challenging previously considered mechanisms of the positive benefits of writing."
There are a whole swathe or other research studies that have asked people to write about different aspects of past positive experiences. I can think of a further ten that are relevant without trying very hard (BMAC, attachment, savouring, life highlights, reminiscence therapy, posttraumatic growth, forgiveness, affirmation theory, self-transcendence, & letting compliments in). As Jamie Pennebaker commented when discussing the therapeutic pathways involved in writing expressively about negative experiences, there seem to be a cascade of mechanisms involved. So, in no particular order, Tarrier has recently published on "Broad minded affective coping (BMAC)" which uses a structured focus on positive memories to elicit positive emotional states with the aim of tapping into more constructive cognitions & behaviours through mechanisms described in Barbara Fredrickson's "Broaden and build" model.
It seems that attachment style (secure, anxious, or avoidant) governs how we access early emotional memories, and this is particularly so for attachment-related memories. Interesting that a recent meta-analysis has shown that overgeneral autobiographical memory is predictive of a worse course in depression. Several different authors have shown that encouraging connection with secure attachment thoughts & memories promotes better functioning. Recent examples include Wildschut et al, Gillath et al, and Sarah et al. This overlaps too with work on self-compassion, and has very interesting potential implications for creative interventions to promote "safeness" through writing, visualisation, specific objects (e.g. photographs, etc), reminiscing, and other modalities.
There is a literature too on "savouring/savoring". See, for example, my blog post "Savouring, mindfulness, flow & positive emotions" where I wrote "Savouring is, as it's name suggests, a sort of running the positive experience around in one's mouth, really tasting, valuing and enjoying it - a bit like slow, careful appreciation of a good wine. Bryant and Veroff, authors of the key current text on savouring, draw parallels between the importance of being good at coping with negative life experiences and the importance of being good at savouring positive life experiences. Savouring well increases one's happiness, wellbeing and appreciation of being alive."
I'm going to run out of time & space here, and I've only begun to talk on writing about past - not yet current or anticipated - positive experiences. So skimming, there's the constructivist life highlights exercise, reminiscence therapy for older people, posttraumatic growth therapy, forgiveness interventions (McCullough et al & vanOyen Witvliet et al), self-affirmation theory, self-transcendence, & allowing compliments in. With a bit more head-scratching I'm sure it would be possible to come up with other examples where writing about past positive experiences looks as though it is therapeutic.
What about writing (or talking) about current or very recent positive experiences? Savouring (see above) has obvious relevance here and overlaps with mindfulness - see my earlier blog post "Savouring, mindfulness & flow". It's interesting too that earlier in the BABCP conference Barney Dunn, from the Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, talked about developments in Behavioural Activation (BA) treatment for depression involving "Attention to experience" interventions to help reduce rumination - see for example my post on Ed Watkins's workshop at last year's conference. Barney linked this to findings from research using Ruth Baer & colleagues' "Five facet mindfulness questionnaire (FFMQ)" showing that better scores on the two facets "observe" and "act aware" are associated with higher levels of reported happiness. Apparently "observe" facet scores are not particularly reduced in depressed subjects, but "act aware" scores are reduced - probably due to increased rumination - and this seems to mediate the lowered enjoyment (reduced levels of positive emotion) associated with depression. For a downloadable copy of the FFMQ & related material, see this website's "Wellbeing and calming skills" page. Barney described how - in his clinical work - when asking clients to keep a positive activity schedule, he also now asks them to keep a positive activity log where they "elaborate" their positive experiences describing the linked feelings, sensations, images, etc (possibly best done from a first person, field rather than third person, observer perspective).
In a related way, one can train oneself and clients to come into the present and pay attention better. See, for example, the kind of interventions described in the blog post "Autogenic training, session 6". See too the "Gratitude & appreciation record", "Suggestions" and "Powerpoint slides" describing a delightfully simple and potentially very helpful happiness-boosting intervention. The suggestions sheet explains how to do the exercise, and the record sheet is filled in as one follows these instructions. Humans (and many other animals) tend to take fairly static aspects of their environment for granted. I suspect this has adaptive survival advantages in hunter-gatherer environments. Part of the cost is the hedonic treadmill where we rapidly take for granted precious every day facts - our ability to function, our relationships, the beauty of nature, the taste of food, so many things. As has been said "We tend to only notice the really important things in life when they're gone." This gratitude noting exercise readjusts the thermostat of our appreciation. It will probably then slide back and may benefit from being readjusted by doing this exercise for a week every month or some other regular reminder.
So there is a growing cluster of more present-focused positive experience writing interventions. In a way, sending postcards to friends while one is on holiday can have similar present-savouring-writing benefits! What about future-focused writing interventions? Probably the best known of these is Laura King's "Best possible selves" exercise. I've described it and one of the several replication studies in the post "Writing for health & wellbeing". Again this future positive focus overlaps with other research reported at this BABCP conference - see papers presented both by Andrew MacLeod and by Helen Barlow. Andrew's talk was entitled "Anticipating future positive experiences: its role in wellbeing and mental health". The abstract for his presentation stated " ... In the realm of future-directed thinking, there is clear evidence that the lack of positive future thinking is different from the presence of negative future thinking, and that reduced positive future thinking rather than increased negative future thinking characterise the cognitions of those who are depressed and suicidal. These findings suggest that interventions to enhance positive future thinking may be valuable in clinical practice. Evidence of the effectiveness of such interventions will be reviewed with a particular emphasis on enhancing goal setting and planning abilities to increase anticipation of future positive experiences." And this ties in too with goals exercises - like the "80th birthday party" and "Funeral speeches" - described on this website's "Wellbeing, time management & self-determination" page.
Gosh, so much material! And I haven't talked about other positive focus exercises like writing about one's values that run across all three of the past, present, and future sections of the positive experiences diagram. I think the point however is made - different forms of therapeutic writing can definitely be used helpfully with positive experiences as well as negative experiences.