Can you write your way to happiness? A headline in the Review section of The Observer a few weeks ago. I’ve been meaning to respond but I’ve been too busy being miserable. So now I will respond and, as a person who has kept a diary every day for the last nearly 40 years, I think I do so with some authority. The answer, in my experience, is no. But, I believe, you can use a diary to aid your sanity and even avoid some of the perils and pitfalls of life as we know it, Jim. I’ve used my diary to get some of those cluttering retirement thoughts out of my head and on to paper, kind of exorcise a few of the demons. There’s always plenty more to occupy my brain in the middle of the night when they are at their most damaging. I like to turn each worry into an action if I can. If not at least I can, having written the offending thought down, close the diary and symbolically walk away from it. A technique recommended by psychologists for dealing with your worries in the form of writing it on a piece of paper, putting the paper in an envelope and then disposing of it by putting it in the waste-bin, or screwing it up or, most dramatically, throwing it on the fire. I do not do any of these with my diary as this would prove expensive.
At a more prosaic (nice word) level I record my lists of retirement things I have to do in the week. In some cases seeing them there week after week eventually shames me into doing those tasks I don’t want to do. I write my appointments, hospital appointments proving particularly popular at the moment, or more rarely, meetings with friends. I record what I’ve been doing and, more recently, ideas for up-coming blogs. I review my year gone and set my ‘goals’ at the beginning of each diary for the coming year, my projects if you like. So my diary is an important weapon in my armoury against the slings and arrows of outrageous life and I’d hate to lose it. Oh and occasionally I get overly poetic, loquacious even but that’s what happens when you play with words on a daily basis, occasionally they get away from you and you lose the thread of what you were supposed to be employing them to do. In this case write a straightforward blog about diary keeping prompted by an article in the paper.
Simple enough so far, sensible use of a diary but nothing to suggest you can ‘write your way to happiness’. As if. But the article which is a very long one won’t give it up. It has a sub-heading that states, ‘A growing number of diarists are using their expressive writing or ‘bullet journalling’ to improve their health and productivity.’ I have to admit this intrigued me a bit. Expressive writing as a therapeutic aid has a fairly long and honourable history (it is said that it doesn’t work for everybody but that’s too complex an issue to go into in this short blog) but, as the article makes clear, any research data on the efficacy of the technique has focused on ‘expressive writing regimes rather than general journal keeping’ and the results ‘cannot be extrapolated’ from one to the other. OK, but what in the name of all that is literary is ‘bullet-journalling’?
Apparently, according to the article, ‘bullet journalling is rooted in the rather broader attempt to organise life’. And also, ‘Bullet journalling helps you live more intentionally because of this practice of living with your thoughts.’ Wow, that’s quite a leap. And now a confession, the more I read about the inventor (highly dubious term in this context) of this system the more I disliked the hyperbole surrounding it and the claims he made for it (seems like a fancy form of making lists and then messing about with them so they’re in order, to me) and so I’m going to exercise my prerogative as the writer of this blog and not tell you any more about it. The article says there are free YouTube videos allowing anybody who’s interested to ‘give it a go’. And no, I won’t look at them. It’s called the Bullet Journal or BuJo, very annoying, but yes, you’re right, probably I’m just peeved because this guy ‘invented’ it and I didn’t and he’s making heaps of cash and I’m not. Shallow, shallow me. It does look slick if the photos accompanying the article are of BuJo, it’s hard to tell if they are but there I go being superficial again.
Anyway all this does not disguise the fact that I’ve been organising my thoughts in my diaries for nearly 40 years, as I believe I mentioned, and perhaps even more so since I retired. And I do believe it (writing in my diary) helps with life’s little (and big) challenges. I have, from time to time, tinkered with colour coding my writings, not really with any purpose or any idea that my writings would become more revelatory as a result, but rather because I just like coloured pencils / biros but I keep losing the green and red ones and I end up with blue or black and that’s not good. In fact I realise I’ve written that and it’s a lie. What happens is that, having bought a mixture of black, blue, red and green Bic biros in Asda, all I have left are the green ones and I don’t particularly like green ink. I guess I’m just not a multi-coloured writer kind of guy. Does look nice in the photo though.
My diary entries in my relatively brief coloured writing phase don’t look so interesting as you can see from the above picture but at least I don’t write the kind of bumped-up drivel that the article contains in part – ‘One thing I’ve noticed is that the complexity of a system is inversely related to the number of people who will adopt it. That is the more complicated something is, the less likely people are to stick with it.’ Well, no shit Sherlock. This from neuroscientist and author Daniel Levitin (his books must be fascinating). All I can say is that it should be the goal of every retired person to simplify their retirement lives to smell out and avoid any obvious bullshit. It’s out there my fellow retirees. Hope this blog hasn’t just added to the pile.