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Write Your Way to Insight

Try these 5 writing exercises to prime yourself for action, empathy and optimism.

Research shows the simple technique of “expressive writing” (see the feature article in the June 2016 issue of Live Happy magazine) can make you happier, healthier and more resilient. But that’s not the only way to create a more joyful life story. Here are five writing assignments to try when you want to spark your creativity, reimagine your future and shake up your present.

1. Describe yourself in 24 words

Experts recommend you start with 24 words, then narrow it down to 12 words, then to six, to three and, finally, to a single word. Writing workshop leader Amber Flame includes this exercise in the classes she leads at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. Inmates might begin with a list that includes words like “cook,” “brown skin,” “curly hair,” “mother,” “guilty” and end up with a single word like “survivor.”

“It’s a good beginning exercise for people who are uncomfortable writing,” Amber says. “Anybody can do it. But simple as it is, it’s also profound and helps us zero in on how we define our life.” Amber says she does the exercise herself every few months “as a spiritual check-in” and finds the words she chooses change each time.

2. Imagine your best possible self

Picture a future in which everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded in achieving all your life dreams. Now, suggests psychologist Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By, write down what you’ve just envisioned. “Be sure to include how you realized your goals (say, by going back to school for a graduate degree). By focusing your story on the practical steps you took, “you might become more optimistic about your future and cope better with any obstacles you encounter.”

3. Write a “joy letter” about someone important in your past or current life

In this gratitude exercise, integrative health coach John Evans, Ed.D., suggests that you devote 20 minutes to describing your relationship with the person you are celebrating, including joyous, wonderful experiences you have shared. “Recall how you felt, what you thought, what you said, what others said to you and where you were,” John says. “How do you feel about that person now? How do you wish to feel about them in the future.” The letter is for you only; don’t worry about sending it unless, after rereading the letter a few days later, you think it would be beneficial for you and the other person.

4. Pose the “if question

In 2008, Seattle police officer Kim Bogucki began asking the inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women a critical question: “If there was something someone could have said or done that would have changed the path that led you here, what would it have been?” The women’s responses were raw and affecting: "If someone would have told me that I was special.” “If someone had stopped the abuse.” “If someone had told me I’d never see my kids grow up.” As women wrote and shared their “What if” essays, they were able to experience compassion for themselves and for each other and to begin to heal.

You don’t need to be in prison, of course, to benefit from this exercise; it’s never too late to identify the “if” that was missing from your life and find ways to provide it for yourself or seek it from others. (Look for the documentary “The IF Project” on the Logo TV network this summer.)

5. Write about something that’s troubling you from the third-person

By switching from the “I” voice to he or she, you’ll gain distance, perspective and insight into a conflict—a recent argument with a friend—or your frustrations in trying to find a new job or a relationship. Adopting the voice of an impartial narrator may feel awkward at first but stick with it. The exercise can lead you to feel empathy for someone else’s point of view and can help you see your own behavior with more objectivity.

Shelley Levitt is an editor at large for Live Happy.

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