Therapy, journaling, and meditation have all been shown to improve mental health. When you look a little closer, they all share one thing in common.
Why Does Talking to Someone About Our Problems Make Us Feel Better?
Therapy, as a whole, has a great and reliable track record as a tool to help people. Most people who stick with therapy for more than a few months, reliably increase well-being and show fewer symptoms of anxiety/depression. What’s more, the longer people stick with therapy, the greater they tend to benefit. The research is overwhelmingly in therapy’s favor. It works. It helps people.
But… here’s the plot twist: we still don’t really know why it works.
Psychology has produced as many forms of therapy as Adam Sandler has cheesy rom-com movies. The field is an alphabet soup of modalities. You’ve got CBT, AEDP, DBT, IPT, ACT, CPP, SFBT and REBT. You’ve got gestalt, existential, schema, Jungian, interpersonal, Rogerian, humanistic, regression, psychoanalysis, and, of course, everyone’s favorite, family therapy.
Each of these modalities offers a unique framework and its own philosophy. Each one constructs a unique view of the human mind and creates its own approach to attacking pathology and mental illness.
With so many approaches to therapy, a few decades ago, researchers rightly became curious about which therapies were the most effective, which ones worked. So they ran hundreds of experiments to measure which therapies produced the best results. And the answer will probably surprise you.
All of them did.
All of them work, to some extent. Pretty much every modality produces, on average, relatively similar results. All of them work decently but not perfectly. Some may work slightly better for certain problems than others (i.e., CBT seems to be marginally better for anxiety). But on the whole, just the fact you’re doing therapy has way, way, way more impact than the type you choose to do.
This is kind of stunning. Because it suggests that for all of the theorizing and frameworking over the last 150 years, from Sigmund Freud to Dr. Phil, the content of the therapy itself isn’t that important. In fact, dozens of studies have struggled to find much measurable benefit to the therapist’s training or credentials. Many studies show that people benefit speaking to amateurs just as much as they do professionals. So, not only does the modality seem to not matter, but the therapist’s credentials don’t even seem to matter that much either.
What’s important is simply getting a person in a room regularly to talk about their problems to another human being who is thoughtful and listens well. That’s the 1% that drives 99% of the results. The value of therapy isn’t the therapy. It’s the context. It’s the environment. You’re paying to have a place to go where you can sort out your shit in front of someone trustworthy and not be judged for it. Everything else—the fancy acronyms and degrees and frameworks—seems to merely be an excuse to get you into that room and into that social context.
Why Does Writing Down All Our Crazy Thoughts Make Us Feel Better?
So, if most of the value of therapy is merely getting into a room and critically discussing your own thoughts, ideas, and emotions, couldn’t we reproduce that in other ways? Couldn’t you simply call up a trusted friend and do that?
Sure, many people do. But there’s another way that maybe isn’t so obvious.
For most of human history, journaling was not something you did for mental health or self-care, it was simply something any educated person did to help themselves think. Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Leonardo Da Vinci, Marie Curie, and Winston Churchill were just a few of history’s avid journalers.
It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that psychologists considered the idea that journaling may offer therapeutic benefits. Many started to experiment with the practice with their patients. The research caught up and showed that indeed, journaling is very effective at promoting mental health and well-being. Today, many therapists and counselors actively encourage their clients to journal as a supplement to their sessions.
The mental health benefits of journaling likely mirror the benefits of talk therapy—there is something mysteriously powerful about verbalizing your thoughts and feelings; it somehow causes them to lose their power over you.
But let’s go one layer deeper. Why does verbalizing our thoughts and feelings somehow make them have less of a grip on us? If you’ve read my shit for a long time now, you probably already know what I’m going to say:
I’ve got a theory.
Why Does Sitting on the Floor and Counting Our Breaths Make Us Feel Better?
I remember the first time I meditated, it was this kooky “eastern spiritual” thing that one of my high school teachers thought would be cool to show us. It was the late 90s and back then, meditation was still an exotic novelty, a weird thing reserved for hippies and mystics. No one I knew took it seriously.
Twenty years later, meditation has gone mainstream. It’s now regularly practiced in board rooms, conferences, seminars, prisons, schools, and churches. Meditation apps have taken off and become a multi-billion dollar industry. Today, meditation is not only normal, but it’s hip. It’s something you kinda brag to people about the way people used to brag about going to the gym.
So far we’ve covered that therapy works because you are verbalizing your thoughts and feelings (therefore loosening their grip on you) and receiving non-judgmental feedback from another person. Journaling works in a similar way—it allows you to verbalize your thoughts and feelings to yourself and then respond to them nonjudgmentally.
I would argue that meditation is effective because it does the exact same thing, it just skips the verbalizing.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that consciousness consists of two parts: the subject and the object. Think of the subject as “the seer” and the object as “the seen.” Both aspects are required in consciousness—there is always something being “seen” and always something doing the “seeing.”
Generally, we are the subject of our consciousness and some external thing is the object. This keyboard I am typing on is currently the object of my consciousness. The food I will have for dinner tonight is the object of my consciousness. The buzzing of my phone is the object of my consciousness.
As long as *I* am the subject and some external thing is the object, then all of my thoughts, feelings, impulses, and desires are bundled up into some intangible subjectivity known as “I” that is not analyzed or considered. This unexamined subject is often referred to as “ego.”
It’s only when we turn our focus on ourselves and make our thoughts and feelings the object of our consciousness that we are able to differentiate them and put them into perspective.
“Oh, I’m feeling sad today and didn’t realize it.” What was once subject (my feeling sad) is now the object of my consciousness, and is thus separated from me. Once separate from me, I can consider my sadness as though it were not me. I can ask why it exists, towards what purpose, is it useful, do I care? This practice of turning one’s subject-base consciousness into the object of one’s consciousness is how self-awareness is formed.
So what do therapy, journaling, and meditation all have in common?
All three are techniques to help us convert what is usually the subject of our consciousness into the object of our consciousness.
They are three tools for building self-awareness and chipping away at the ego. Therapy does this by some thoughtful person inviting us to express our thoughts and feelings. Journaling does this by eliciting us to write about our thoughts and feelings. Meditation does this by teaching us to observe our thoughts and feelings as though they are separate from ourselves.
This is how to get better. To turn the subject into object. To transmute the implicit into the explicit. To shift the internal into external. To move from subjective to objective.
And then, once our thoughts, feelings, and impulses are separated from our “I”—from our ego—we can choose whether we want to keep them and reintegrate them or to simply let them go.