For the last two and a half years I’ve kept a diary. I don’t remember particularly why I started it – although luckily, my diary remembers for me. As recorded, it was “to hold for myself a private compendium of my thoughts and feelings, highs and lows, successes and regrets, so that when I’m older I might browse through it and remind myself of what it was like to be alive five, ten, fifteen years ago.” Reading through it, I can now recall my reasons more easily, and consequently I’m feeling a little re-invigorated about maintaining the habit.
Continuing to read, I’m taken back to my time in Switzerland. It’s as if I’ve created a portal for my emotions to pass through; all the joys and frustrations, each with their unique character and texture, summoned from the past to arrive in the here-and-now, through the mere action of me reading. I can vividly remember what it felt like to write each entry, during each reading letting the sensations wash over me. It’s almost magic – a stream of invisible colours coming forwards, lingering for a while on an intangible canvas. Sadness, happiness, hopes and passions – all preserved, ready to be relived.
My diary also gives me a window into who I was. My thoughts tell me of my temperament; my wishes reveal my character. I can compare my past self with who I am today, reflecting on how far I’ve come and in what ways I’ve changed. I can see whether the future turned out how I intended, predicted or hoped it to, and I can appreciate my thoughts from the past as they appear again fresh in my mind, seen from a new perspective of improved knowledge and experience.
All of these things I find tremendously rewarding. Reading my diary provides me with the most satisfying indulgence of nostalgia I could hope for, whilst also giving me intellectually satisfying insights into myself as a person. I only had a small conception of the benefits of keeping a diary when I first started, so I’m pleased I’ve managed to make time for it all this time since, long enough to see some of the real value in it. I can talk about all of these things, yet I’ve barely mentioned the primary associated benefit of simply remembering the things you did.
From a cognitive perspective, writing is naturally good for memory. Memory works in an efficient way – only thoughts that get thought about get remembered (in psychology, this concept is called rehearsal). By writing down the things that happen to you, or the thoughts you’ve had and the ways you’ve felt, you dramatically increase your ability to recall them in future (even without the aid of reading what you’ve written). In this way, writing a diary strengthens your recollection of things even when you don’t read what you’ve written, and when you do read it, you’re likely to remember things better than you might remember unrehearsed things that happened to you even only a week ago – I always find the feeling remarkable. After having written your memories down, you have in effect stored them away. They’re significantly protected from the degradation of time – the quality of the seal dependant on how many times you choose to read and relive each entry.
Other intellectual benefits are also available. Writing frequently causes me to think about things I otherwise wouldn’t have – this is something I find very valuable, since everything I believe about the world is based on the quality and breadth of the thoughts I have about it. When you’re thinking about what to write, you’re actively engaging your mind, questioning how you feel and about what’s happened to you recently. This kind of self-interrogation helps you to understand what it is you really think about things – you’re in a process of reflection, allowing yourself to grow and better understand yourself. When writing about your thoughts you’re challenging yourself to make them coherent, logical and disciplined. You unearth inconsistencies, identify why you think what you think and discover unexpected implications. All of these things are beneficial for the mind.
Writing can also be treated as a therapeutic activity. By combing through your thoughts and feelings, allowing yourself to express how you truly feel about anything you like, you can step back from them, untangle and organise them. It can be an enjoyable activity for its own sake and provide an outlet for you to be totally honest, even when you feel like there’s no one you can be honest to. It lets you express yourself at times when you wouldn’t feel comfortable expressing yourself otherwise, and, months or years down the line, you can read back what you’ve written with a clear head and a new take on life. There is much wisdom that can be found in analysing and coming to understand yourself.
Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different if I hadn’t made a habit of keeping a diary. I expect that my past would feel so much more distant and cloudy without the clarity afforded by reading a diary entry. I would forget key details, allowing them to become lost forever. I feel like I know myself more than I otherwise would, and that I understand more about why I think the things I do. My writing has improved alongside my ability to decompartmentalise complex thoughts into disparate ones. I would also like to think that my beliefs are more accurate, having given them greater care and attention, analysing the important ones when writing. There have been several occasions when I’ve been writing and suddenly felt the satisfaction of understanding a thing in a way that I hadn’t before, and any such hard-won insights become treasured.
I expect that I’ll continue the habit for the rest of my life. I certainly look forward to reading thoughts from my youth from the perspective of old age, and, once I’ve made that journey, I’ve enabled myself to live it all over again.