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How keeping a ‘pain journal’ can improve your overall happiness


We hear a lot about how gratitude journals can help foster gratefulness and improve overall well-being, but a twist on the daily practice of journaling can lead us to happiness too, experts say.

“One of the exercises that I ask my students to do, to undertake over the course of my class in happiness, is to understand what their pain means,” said social scientist Arthur C. Brooks during The Atlantic Festival in September.

“I ask them to keep a pain journal,” said Brooks who is also a professor who teaches about happiness at Harvard University.

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Brooks encourages people to grab a notebook and use it to track the lessons they’ve learned from painful experiences that have led to positive outcomes.

Here’s how you can use a pain journal to learn from your own challenges in life.

How to use a ‘pain journal’ for happiness and gratitude

These are the steps you should take for each pain journal entry:

  1. Set aside three lines per entry
  2. Fill in the first line by briefly describing the painful experience you went through and how it made you feel. Ex. “I lost my job, and I’m worried about my future.”
  3. Leave the two lines under the first line empty.
  4. Come back after a month and write about what you learned as a result of the painful experience on the second line.
  5. Six months later, write about a good thing that happened in your life as a result of that experience on the third line.

You get to look at the ways that you’ve learned and grown and benefitted.

Arthur C. Brooks

Social scientist and Harvard professor

“Inevitably, you wind up writing things in those spaces, and after a while, you start looking forward to writing in your pain journal,” Brooks said during the two-hour panel.

“Because you get to look at the ways that you’ve learned and grown and benefitted.”

And research supports journaling in general for improved mental health.

Journaling for as little as 15 minutes a day has been associated with an increase in clarity for your thoughts and feelings, better problem-solving skills and even support to move on from traumatic experiences, according to wellness guru Deepak Chopra and Kabir Sehgal, a New York Times bestselling author.

Expressing your feelings about a painful experience on paper can also lead to acceptance. “Research has consistently linked the habitual tendency to accept one’s mental experiences with greater psychological health,” according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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