The Benefits of Writing Stories


I recently came across this article concerning a study about the mental and physical benefits of writing about personal experiences in a way which involves emotions. James W. Pennebaker and James D. Seagal presented research on this in "Forming a Story: The Health Benefits of Narrative," Journal of Clinical Psychology, 55, no. 10 (1999): 1243–1254. You can find a good bibliography of the extensive research in this area before 1999 at the end of the article.

This reminds me somewhat of Victor Frankl's thesis in Man's Search for Meaning, that is, that human beings have a need to understand the meaning of events. Understanding can be more important than merely ending the negative aspects of events, even terrible events. Other themes from MacIntyre, Bettelheim, etc. come to mind, too.


What I find most intriguing how Pennebaker and Seagal debunk a possible explanation for a correlation between writing stories or constructing narratives and mental/physical health. That is, writing stories feeds a need for self-expression and that leads to mental/physical health. Pennebaker and Seagal point out that if this were a valid explanation, then dance, art, music and other similar non-verbal activities would offer the same benefits. However, as they say, "traditional research on catharsis or the venting of emotions has failed to support the clinical value of emotional expression in the absence of cognitive processing" (Lewis and Bucher, 1992), (1247).

Pennebaker and Seagal find more evidence to suggest that "health gains appear to require translating experiences into language" (1248).

And that lends support to the idea that you cannot do education or formation rightly with story, without history, both personal and communal.

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