I was 10 and it was a white Lisa Frank journal with a red bubble gum dispenser on the front. It also came with a heart-shaped lock and key which was a must considering I had an older brother living under the same roof who was always looking for new and inventive ways to humiliate me.
That one little journal (okay…I called it a diary back then) unlocked a world of potential to me which quite literally became my saving grace, my happy place, for the rest of my life.
Over the years, the aesthetics of my journal evolved, as did my writing subjects and style thankfully. But the one thing that’s been constant is that, no matter how sad I am or how bad things have seemed before I started writing, somehow the world and my place in it always becomes clearer and less noisy after just 5 minutes of “writing it out.”
In this article, we will take a look at how investing a few minutes a day in the 5 minute journal can lead you to happiness.
The Benefits of the 5 Minute Journal
For most of my life, I never really knew or cared why writing for even 5 minutes made me happier, I just knew it worked.
If I was feeling lost or unhappy, I’d eventually realize I hadn’t written in a while (duh!). So I’d meet myself back at the blank page and word by word, start feeling more like me again.
To be completely honest, I did (and still do) this forgetting-to-journal dance way more often than I’d like to admit. For the life of me, I don’t know why I don’t keep doing the thing I know makes me happy every day instead of waiting until I’m unhappy to do the thing. Can you relate?
I’m pretty certain it’s not just a me thing: it’s a human thing. We know we’ll be happier if we eat better, exercise, disconnect from technology, get more sleep, etc. but often times, it takes us feeling unhappy in order to put in the effort to be more happy.
A couple of months ago, I found myself in that place:
I’d hit a wall of resistance around my business and a downturn in my health that caused me to doubt what I was capable of accomplishing. I was completely confused and indecisive about the direction of my business and where I should be focusing my limited energy, so I hired a coach to help me sort through my noisy brain.
As I laid out all of my decisions and endless to-do lists in front of her, she asked me an important question:
What’s one thing you can start doing everyday that will have a positive impact on all of these things?
In other words: What if instead of having to worry about ALL THE THINGS to be happier, you could just do ONE thing and everything else would get better too?
I could start every day with a few minutes in my journal.
It’s both hilarious and embarrassing that as a coach and a writer (and a coach who works with writers), that I hadn’t thought of this myself. Alas, as the saying goes, doctors are the worst patients.
Of course, the answer was writing in my journal! Isn’t the answer almost always the most obvious thing?
But sometimes, the answer is so obvious, so simple, so free and convenient that we convince ourselves that it can’t possibly do that much to improve our situation. Somehow in the busy-ness of life, I’d convinced myself I just couldn’t spare that time to do something so…(cringe) arbitrary.
Yet, as I thought about my coach’s question and the ONE THING that could positively affect all the things, I realized that journaling for me has always been so much more than a random outlet for exploring my feelings.
Sure, nothing actually happened but me sitting on my bed in my pajamas writing. Over the years, from breakups to big moves, my most life-changing moments–like my decision to pursue writing as a career, to uproot my entire life and move cross country, and my finally feeling ready to become a mother–happened in the quiet moments between me and the pages of my journals.
How to Be Happy with the 5 Minute Journal
The other day I was talking to a friend of mine about writing this article. I asked her how often she journals and if she thought it made her happier.
In general, she said, yes, journaling does seem to help her get things off her chest but she doesn’t always feel better afterward. And, in fact, sometimes if she’s already in a negative place, she can spiral even worse while journaling and go to an even darker place.
She told me that usually with time and perspective, she can see that just the act of writing and getting out of her head is therapeutic but, suggested that for people like her, prompts to help her not spiral into the negative abyss would be super helpful.
And so, in order to make sure you get the most out of your 5 minute journal, I’ve broken up each writing prompt based on how you’re feeling so you can let your emotions guide the best prompt for you that day to increase your happiness meter.
1. When you’re burnt out, talk to your inner hero (a.k.a the “real” you).
What’s the one thing everyone tells you about maintaining happy, healthy relationships?
You’ve gotta have great communication!
But what about your relationship with yourself? How do you connect with you? How do you continue being the hero in your story?
The same way that you have to make the time to connect with the people in your life who mean the most to you, you also have to make the time for you to hear your voice:
To remember what YOU sound like amidst all of the noise in the world. To listen to your inner hero.
For me, the only way I know how to do this, the only way I’ve ever known how to do this, is through journaling.
Our brains can go down negative spirals, especially when we’re tired and stressed.
In my last Lifehack article about finding motivation, I walk you through some questions you can ask yourself about whether you’re playing the role of victim or hero of your story. Definitely check it out if you’re really on the brink, or in the midst, of some serious burn out.
Essentially, if you’re burnt out, you’ve somehow let your circumstances take control of your life. In other words, you’ve started to act like the victim instead of the hero.
Luckily, just 5 minutes in your journal can help you find your inner hero (your true voice) and reclaim your right to live your happiest life.
Write down these questions in your journal and answer them one at a time–permission to be 100% honest granted:
- What do I believe is the #1 reason I’m feeling burnt out?
- Who or what did I blame in my last answer?
- Taking 100% responsibility for my own life and decisions, and casting blame on no one (including myself), how can I improve this situation?
- What decisions am I currently making to stay in these circumstances (how am I choosing them)?
- What new decisions can I start making to get closer to where I want to be?
- What do I need to let go of in order to get my energy back? What do I need to say “no” to?
When you start to own your role of hero, you start to realize how your current choices and limiting beliefs may be holding you back from living the happiest version of your life.
The great news is once you realize your past choices have brought you to your current circumstances, you also realize that you can make different choices to bring you to a happier place.
2. When you’re doubting yourself, write off the gremlins.
Whenever I’m feeling down on myself, it usually has less to do with what’s happening on the outside, and more to do of what’s happening between my ears. In other words, how “I’m” talking to myself.
We all have little shame gremlins (I call mine “Mean Girls”) who live inside of our heads and tell us we’re dumb and ugly and worthless. The only way to combat those noisy buggers is to expose them for the liars they are.
Writing down these lies makes them powerless. Once they’re out of your head and on paper, you realize how ridiculous they truly are (even though they were completely owning you just moments before).
I like to write out all the nasties and put them in their place (which is on the page and out of my head, pronto). Then I can go back to living my happy truth.
Here are some powerful questions to ask your inner gremlins (perhaps better known as you being a real jerk to yourself). Write down each question and answer them in your journal.
Ask your gremlins:
- What are you saying about me? (Don’t hold back. Really write down all of the terrible thoughts you’re having about yourself)
- Is anything true about each of the things I just wrote?
- Repeat this same exercise for each of the nasty things your gremlins are saying about you and expose them in their lies once and for all.
When you’re done, answer these powerful questions:
- Knowing what I know now, what’s one thing I can do to improve each of these areas of my life?
- Knowing that the voices of the gremlins are strong, what are 3 new beliefs or positive affirmations I can say daily about myself to drown out their negativity?
For example, let’s use a fictional character of a guy named Sam. Sam’s gremlins are telling him “you’re a lousy parent, a terrible spouse, and mediocre at work.”
If Sam asks himself, “Am I really a lousy parent?” Maybe his answer is “No, I love my kids and I’m doing the best I can. I just wish I could be more attentive when I’m with them instead of so distracted by work.”
So maybe Sam decides to not bring his work computer home with him anymore and really unplug once he leaves the office so he can give his kids his full attention.
Sam decides that his new daily affirmation is: “I’m a loving father and am fully present for my kids. I save the best of me for my family.”
Imagine how much better you’ll feel when you start to take back control over your self talk and program in the messages that empower you and get you closer to the person you strive to be.
3. When you’re indecisive or afraid, talk to your fear.
Those same shame gremlins or mean girls inside of our heads feed off of fear. It’s like a good piece of gossip they can’t help but spread and exaggerate.
Luckily, when we write out how we’re feeling and what negative thoughts are spiraling, we can generally recognize when it’s actually just our fears talking.
You’re probably wondering how to tell if it’s fear talking or your intuition, right? This is where exploring your feelings comes into play.
Are you feeling powerless? Are you feeling anxious or sad? Everyone’s response to fear is different but it’s never a positive feeling.
If you’re at peace and calm but feel nudged that something isn’t right, that’s most-likely your intuition talking. But if you’re in a glass cage of negative emotions, you can bet fear is the culprit.
Don’t hate on fear too much though. Our fears are just trying to protect us from something–the rub is they also usually keep us from something even better in the process.
I like to use journaling as a way to have a little talk with my fear, understand where it’s coming from and then decide if it’s worth listening to.
Here’s your journaling prompt for hashing it out with your fear:
Again, write down these questions in your journal one at a time and answer each one:
Ask your fear:
- What are you trying to protect me from?
Once you answer that, ask:
- What are you preventing me from having if I listen to you?
If the thing you really want is on the other side of your fear, then you know what you have to do next (luckily journals are a great place to make to-do lists as well)!
My last and favorite questions to ask fear is:
- What’s the absolute worst-case scenario?
For example, let’s say you’re terrified of breaking ties with a client who is making your professional life miserable. You may answer this question with something like “My client blacklists me and smears ugly rumors about me all around town and not only do I lose one client but my entire business goes down.”
Eeesh. That does sound scary. Now ask yourself:
- What are some steps I can take to ensure the worst case scenario doesn’t happen?
- How likely is it that the worst-case scenario will actually happen (especially if I use the plan above)?
Maybe, when you think about it, the client is actually preventing you from bringing in new business because they’re taking up so much of your time.
And maybe that client doesn’t even have the best reputation so the chances of them being able to bring you down are pretty small.
What if you spent one hour a week for the next 3 weeks working on bringing in new business to replace the the income you make from that client, and figure out a way to end the contract in a very respectful, classy way to hopefully make the odds of them making a stink minimal?
Now you have a plan! But there’s one more question to ask yourself:
- If the worst case scenario happened, what would you do?
Maybe you realize that if you really needed to, you could always go back to your previous job; they loved you and beg you to all the time. Or you could get by for a couple of months until you were able to bring in some more clients, especially if you cut back on expenses
Once you stare your fear in the face, it magically loses its power. Left inside of your head, it can destroy you; but taking a few minutes to look at it and use it as a friend who’s showing you where you may need to implement a plan in order to protect yourself, you can take back the reins of your happiness and realize that fear really isn’t all that scary at all.
At this point, it needs to be said that journaling isn’t only good for getting out the nasty feelings, it’s also super useful for recording the good stuff of life which leads me to the fourth writing prompt.
4. When you’re in a funk, focus on gratitude.
Just about any happiness book or article you read will tell you that being in a state of gratitude dramatically increases your happiness. For me, having a place to get down to the truth of my life and what’s actually going really well and what I’m grateful for helps put everything into perspective, especially when I’ve got a case of the blues.
Here are some of my favorite gratitude prompts to help get me out of a funk and focusing on the sunnier side of life.
Write down these questions in your journal one at a time and answer each one:
- What is something good that happened today?
- What made me laugh or smile today?
- Who am I grateful for today?
- What am I grateful for today?
- With my “gratitude glasses” on, how do my problems or the funk I’m in look in relation to all of the good things I have in my life?
Take a look at this article too to learn more about keeping a gratitude journal: How a Gratitude Journal and Positive Affirmations Can Change Your Life
Shifting out of a funk and into gratitude shifts your energy out of “woe is me” and into “yay for me” which means, based on the Law of Attraction, you’ll begin to attract more of the things you want and less of what you don’t. Seriously, yay for you!
5. When you’re uninspired or bored with the status quo, let it flow.
One of the best and easiest ways to tap into your inspiration and feel a little bit of creative magic in your life is through stream of consciousness writing.
I dare you to put your pen on a blank page for 5 minutes and do nothing but make sure the pen doesn’t stop moving.
No thinking. No judgements. The only thing you’re not allowed to do is overthink or judge your writing. It’s all good. Everything that comes out is good (even if it’s total crap).
When I was in grad school, I took this awesome class on creativity and in it read a book called From Where you Dream by Robert Olen Butler. The book is mostly about fiction writing but essentially, he says that the best time to tap into your subconscious (where your “flow” lives) is when you first wake up in the morning. Since you’re fresh from dreaming, your brain is still tuned to that frequency, so to speak, and not clouded by “reality” from your day-to-day life.
So my last and final 5-minute journal prompt for you, uninspired one, is to wake up and let yourself keep dreaming on paper.
Here are your instructions:
- Set the timer for 5 minutes.
- Open your journal.
- Pick up your pen.
- Keep your pen moving until your timer stops.
What I love about this is it requires releasing all expectations and giving yourself creative freedom to let whatever needs to come out come out.
Become Happier in 5 Minutes (or Even Less)
Giving yourself a safe space to not expect anything other than to just show up and be honest is incredibly liberating.
In a world where there are endless things we are supposed to be doing, and ways in which we’re supposed to be doing them, I love showing up to a blank page with no requirements other than to just let my hand move.
It’s free and requires nothing from me other than just showing up wherever I am–talk about an endless source of grace!
Plus it gets my myriad thoughts out of my head and allows me to release them from my body, which research at top universities has shown can dramatically reduce stress.
You don’t need to change EVERYTHING in your life all at once (it doesn’t work anyway, trust me, I’ve tried).
Start with giving yourself the gift of reflection in your journal every day and see how your life starts to change. I guarantee you’ll feel more connected with yourself in the process and over time everything in your life will start to be a better reflection of you and what you value.
And that, my friends, is the key to lasting happiness.