Throughout history people have felt the need to chronicle their lives by writing a journal. Many great philosophers, artists, and politicians have religiously written journals all their lives. Given the list of great people who have written journals, one can’t help but wonder, if perhaps there is some link between the practice of journaling, and the development and fulfillment of our human potential.

So what are some of the benefits of writing a journal?

1) Bearing witness

Writing a journal may be much like writing a memoir – a way to record the events of one’s life. In observing and writing honestly about ourselves and our lives, we learn to distance ourselves a little bit. We gain a broader perspective and can achieve a greater level of objectivity.

This can be particularly beneficial in times of difficulty, as it can help us shift our perspective from identifying with everything that happens to us, and taking things personally, to becoming an interested spectator in our own story. It is the difference between no longer standing in the torrent of troubling events but choosing to sit on the bank observing things from a slightly safer distance.

By writing about our lives we are naturally reflecting on ourselves, and so developing our self-knowledge and self-awareness. We begin to question and inquire into ourselves and our habits, patterns, thoughts, emotions, and ways of being and behaving. Journaling is a contemplative practice, a meditation, in which we can gain insight and self-understanding.

2) Meaning and purpose

Chronicling our lives in this way can help us see the broader tapestry of our life, and so to imbue it with a sense of meaning and purpose. By recording our story, we create our story, and so develop our sense of identity. We perceive a sense of order unfolding in our lives, which can help develop a feeling of trust and belonging. The emerging story of ourselves can help nourish and sustain us. It can also help us clarify and decipher what our passion and purpose in life is.

3) Self-cultivation

Journaling gives us the opportunity to develop and grow as a person. When we write about our lives we learn to appreciate things and not take life for granted. We become curious. We develop our creativity. Writing about ourselves cultivates courage as we learn to face ourselves and investigate the parts of ourselves and our lives that we don’t like.

Any strength or quality can be developed in this way: humour, wonder, kindness, judgement. A good example of this is the practice of gratitude journaling which research shows increases our happiness levels by reminding us what we have to be grateful for in our lives.

When we reflect on our strengths and achievements, we develop confidence in ourselves to meet challenges in the future. While journaling we may also reflect on our dreams and imagine possibilities – visualise the life and future we want to create for ourselves. As we visualise ourselves creating this life, and see ourselves in our mind’s eye doing it, we can build our confidence that we can actually do this in reality.

4) Catharsis

Self-expression is cathartic. When we write our worries, fears, frustrations, regrets and sorrows down we learn to face, embrace and let go of them. Writing is a release. You empty yourself of your burdens and feel a greater sense of lightness and relief afterwards.

5) Values and precepts for living

Marcus Aurelius wrote the Meditations, not to teach Stoic philosophy to others, but as a reminder to himself of how to conduct himself and live every day. The Stoics were famous for their premeditations – sitting down at the start of the day and reflecting on how they would like to act and treat others throughout the day. They recalled the values that they would like to live by and recited certain precepts or short statements reminding them to live according to their ideals. They did the same thing in the evening by reflecting on their actions that day – what their state of mind was throughout the day, how they treated others, what they said, what activities they engaged in, and how they spent their time.

We too can use a journal as a way to reflect on whether we are living up to our standards, principles and values. If we acknowledge mistakes we made, we can, by reflecting on them, resolve to act differently next time. We can reflect on our actions and identify areas we would like to improve in, and parts of ourselves we would like to develop and grow.

The potential uses of journaling and the benefit it can have in our lives are limitless. It is a self-directed process in which we can create a space to be ourselves. Over time we can develop a deeper relationship with ourselves and come to rely on this practice as a resource that we can use throughout our lives. Through this process we can awaken our muse or inner guide, that becomes an old trusted friend, who can help us navigate through tricky moments in our lives.