What’s your favourite definition of ‘wellbeing’? Mine was supplied by a group of researchers from Cardiff Metropolitan University in 2021, who defined it as: ‘the balance point between an individual’s resource pool and the challenges faced… Stable wellbeing is when individuals have the psychological, social and physical resources they need to meet a particular psychological, social and/or physical challenge’. (1)
One reason I like this so much is the implication that we need not necessarily be overwhelmed by any challenge if we can balance it, sooner or later, by increasing our resources. But how do we do that?
There’s a powerful but often overlooked tool that I’d like to bring to your attention here: exploratory writing. This is fundamentally different from the writing we typically do at work, which is usually aimed at informing or influencing others: it’s about exploring what you DON’T know, rather than expressing what you DO. It’s not intended for anyone else to read, which means you can be as raw and uncertain and honest as you like, and it’s done at speed, in short sprints (I recommend six minutes) in response to a prompt or question of your own choosing, depending on the challenge, problem or frustration you’re facing. Ideally it’s done by hand on a scruffy piece of paper, meaning you are offline, indistractable and kinaesthetically engaged, and can move between a range of mark-making modes at will. And then, once the resulting insights have been harvested, the writing itself is destroyed – it’s done its job.
Ever since Aristotle’s theory of catharsis we’ve understood that writing can have a therapeutic dimension. But it was in 1986 that the concept of writing as a workable therapeutic tool gained prominence, following a seminal study by Pennebaker and Beall. (2)
James Pennebaker had been studying the body’s response to stress, specifically in relation to polygraphs, or lie detectors, and he noticed that after confessing their guilt, subjects appeared not just less stressed but positively relieved. He started to research the health implications of opening up about trauma rather than holding it in. To avoid the ethical and practical issues of asking people to talk about deeply personal issues to strangers, he stumbled upon what he called ‘expressive writing’ as a more workable process.
The results were remarkable. The group encouraged to write privately for 15 minutes each day about past traumatic experiences showed significant long-term health benefits, reduced anxiety, improved memory and sleep, and better performance at work compared to control groups.
Intrigued, Pennebaker did further studies to see if he could work out what it was about the writing practice that caused the most dramatic improvements. He discovered that the subjects reporting the most significant benefits tended to use more ‘sensemaking’ words – ‘realize’, ‘because’, ‘reason’ – and to shift their perspective over time. It wasn’t simply catharsis that was making these people feel better, it was the processing of experience.
When nothing out of the ordinary is happening, our brains coast along. Most of us manage most days with a loose, unregulated, unexamined set of scripts and assumptions. When things are going pretty much as we expect, there’s no need to engage in explicit sensemaking.
But when something unexpected, new or disruptive happens – say, for example, change in the workplace – our old ways of thinking are challenged. That can result in a knee-jerk negative psychological experience (anger, grief, denial), or it can lead to a more conscious attempt to make sense of the new experience. No prizes for guessing which response is more likely to enhance wellbeing.
There are two main ways in which we engage in sensemaking: in our own thinking and in conversation with others. In my book Exploratory Writing: Everyday magic for life and work, I explore how exploratory writing provides a third, perhaps even more helpful option, as it forces us to articulate our thinking while at the same time allowing us to explore different ideas and their implications freely and without being swayed by others’ agendas or assumptions.
Sensemaking isn’t always a simple process. There’s rarely a single, clear narrative we can construct quickly to help us understand and accommodate new experience and thereby restore our equilibrium. Part of the reason for this is that there are multiple ways of understanding experience, and there are multiple selves within us offering competing narratives about what just happened.
Apart from the psychoanalyst’s couch, there aren’t too many places in the modern world where we’re safe to explore these multiple aspects of ourselves, or try out different possible interpretations and narratives. When someone asks you what you think about something, they expect one opinion which expresses your stance on the matter. The reality of course is that various parts of you might have very different opinions.
Allowing yourself just a few minutes for an exploratory writing sprint can help you explore and integrate that range of responses.
In fact, simply recognizing that multiple responses and narratives are possible is important for our wellbeing. It frees us from the tyranny of first thoughts and reminds us that there are always options, even when we can’t see them at first glance, and that we are rarely as powerless as we think.
The beauty of exploratory writing is that it’s always available to us, and that it can be used in whatever way suits the writer best, so it’s highly inclusive. (Visual thinker? Draw it out. Non-native English speaker? Write fluently in your own language. Lack confidence in your literacy? It doesn’t matter – no one else will see this.)
Alongside your more formal wellbeing interventions, it’s worth adopting this low-cost, high-performing tool for yourself and your people.
(1) Rachel Dodge, Annete P. Daly, Jan Huyton & Lalage D. Sanders, ‘The challenge of defining wellbeing’, International Journal of Wellbeing 2012;2(3), p. 230.
(2) James W. Pennebaker & Sandra K. Beall, ‘Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease’, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1986;95(3), 274–281.
Alison Jones is founder of Practical Inspiration Publishing and host of The Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast. Formerly director of innovation strategy at Palgrave Macmillan, she now works with business leaders and entrepreneurs to help them clarify their thinking and communicate more effectively. She has written and edited several books, most recently Exploratory Writing: Everyday magic for life and work (2022), which has been shortlisted for Business Book of the Year, and This Book Means Business (2018). She speaks regularly at industry and business events, and contributes articles on books and writing to national press and industry publications.