A few days ago I stumbled across the line marking the first month of this blog. This is novice territory when it comes to blogging, but over this period I’ve done a lot of reflecting and equal amounts of research into the experiences of other more accomplished bloggers. Let me tell you about 10 unexpected ways that blogging can enrich your life and positively influence mental well-being.
Focused Creativity & Generativity
Many people start a blog as a platform through which to channel “energy of the mind” – thoughts, feelings, ideas… dreams of something more. Seth Godin, best-selling author of the books, Tribes and Unleashing the Ideavirus, says that “I blog because I don’t really have a choice. The ideas in me insist on being shared, and this is the least painful way I can find to do it!”
But what’s not immediately apparent is how the consistent act of blogging itself can spur you on to greater creativity, a kind that is more focused and articulated – “packaged” if you like, for sharing with others.
The idea of starting a blog had been floating around in my head for about 5 months before I actually worked up the nerve to take the plunge. After that first post was completed, a slip-stream opened up inside of me. With each new article, momentum grew and the thoughts kept coming. I realized that they were always there, I just didn’t have the tools for expressing them. Or the courage. I held them so close to me that there was no space to play around and be creative with my ideas. So much of my internal dialogue was like a locked cabinet of half-used art supplies.
If you ask bloggers, many tend to agree. Shannon from Mom without Labels notes that her blog “… started out as a hobby… an outlet… It’s something that is mine and only mine. I get to experiment, express, and engage.”
Where does the compulsion to express the internal milieu come from? The great artistic endeavors of humans across time and space are testament to the deep-seated desire to create meaning and channel it outwards into the world. But what is “meaning” and why do we yearn for it?
Meaning is really just another way of talking about learning – it is the association of two things so that through this process, we come to know something more about novel objects or things in the world. It is an evolutionary imperative. By knowing more, we gain a sense of mastery over something, and this feels good. For instance, if I can associate coffee with the energy rush it triggers within me, I can use coffee to my advantage.
In the sciences, this process of association is called the Hebbian principle of correlation learning. In brain terms, this implies that neurons (brain cells) that frequently fire together, eventually wire together, meaning that when neuron A fires, this triggers the firing of neuron B.
Blogging is therefore a way to clarify your ideas so that you can generate meaning by connecting them together in novel and insightful ways. This can be a genuinely rewarding process and one that tends to take on a self-fulfilling life of its own.
Purpose & Grounding
Since I’ve started writing and publishing content to my site, the world, somehow, has taken on more shape and stability. For a large portion of the first chapter of our travels in South America, I had the eerie feeling of being held in a pair of giant spindly hands – hands which clasped around me, holding my weight with jagged, brittle fingers. It was an unsettling place to be.
Consistent blogging has given me structure. Though I have not been chronicling our day-to-day activities, I have chosen to allow our experiences to inspire and consolidate my ideas on related topics. I have come to trust that the rewards of meaning-making far surpass the agonies of writer’s block and growing my blog is something I can now consider a hobby.
My commitment to publishing content here on Where’s my Dopamine? has in turn fostered a reflectiveness that keeps me grounded in the moment.
Viktor Emil Frankl, the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor famously wrote about what he termed the “existential vacuum”. The theory goes, if meaning is what we ultimately desire as human beings, then meaninglessness is a hole, causing the feeling of emptiness in our lives. It is a state of a lack of direction and purpose, the most common sign being boredom and creative fatigue. Frankl believed that, like a slack line, some degree of tension is required on the path to achieving our goals for the feeling of fulfillment to emerge.
This idea of “tension” will resonate all too well with writers. We must knead through our tangle of thoughts to draw them out into something workable. I have previously written about this curious phenomenon, that stress and its neurochemical driver, cortisol, is actually an essential part of well-being in moderate doses. Because it is exactly this, the mental kneading that brings meaning and purpose to achieving our goals.
Purpose does not require a single underlying dedication in life. Rather it is something more ephemeral because it is a feeling of belonging in your own life and usually comes about when you see value in your actions. If you’re invested in the process of blogging, purpose will ultimately follow.
Is blogging just a crutch, a way to avoid the mindful practice of truly being in the moment? Maybe, but I can tell you one thing, its certainly a better crutch than endless episodes of Netflix. I tell myself that film and good television is art and an artefact of psychology – A way to examine human social behaviour. But in truth, my mind was unsettled, shapeless. I needed creativity and purpose.
If your thoughts are the very fuel driving the blogging machine, you’ll need to pay them close attention. Creating posts for my blog has had the effect of crystallising many of my opinions, attitudes and desires, which previously I let float in a space of indecisiveness. What, really, do I want to write about? What is important to me?
What follows is self-discovery and a sharpening of identity.
Alex from the blog, The Mindful Mermaid, writes about her experiences after 6 months of blogging. “I learned that this requires a bit of soul searching to determine exactly who you are at your core, and how you can tailor this into a personal brand. Be genuine. You shouldn’t have to feel like the face you put out there to the world is different from who you really are.”
Blogging is about many things. For some it is a source of income, but underneath the financial repercussions that the few are lucky enough to reap, blogging is, at its core, an exercise in self-consciousness and a process of aligning your internal compass.
“We write our stories with the hope they will be read, and with the hope that readers will have a response. That they will be moved. And whether they respond in ways we expect, or ways we didn’t expect, the main things to remember is that we have written down our experience. And the main movement that occurs is beyond whether or not the books fly off the shelves. The main movement is what occurs within us, the transformation of memory into prose, and in the process becoming conscious of what your life actually is, and who you actually are. – Nancy Wait, author of The Nancy Who Drew and founder of The Alchemy of Memoir blog.
Overcoming Writers’ Block
Students, aspiring writers: If for no other reason, start a blog for the practical purpose of helping you push through that gulf of procrastination to overcome writer’s block.
Writer’s block does not have to be a full blown crises of stagnation to be worth contesting. I have dealt for years with that uneasy feeling of trying to straighten out my ideas and weave them into a coherent line of reasoning. I think the barrier is two-fold. On the one hand, it is a cognitive challenge to transfer a set of interlinking ideas, which we seem to be able to hold in mind and understand in an instant, into discrete sets of statements which follow a logical sequence and which are hierarchically arranged.
For example, this post was easy to conetpualise and think about. When I focussed on the topic, the ideas came to me instantly, but in a kind of bundle. Unfortunately, we can’t write in a “bundle” – as if the ideas could be transferred telepathically into other minds. I had to spend quite a bit of time figuring out what to say at the beginning, and which specific details to cover. I had a lot of competing ideas which introduced conflict into my thinking. And this conflict caused distress.
This is the root of procrastination – avoiding the distress of disentangling our thoughts. Brain imaging studies have shown that expert creative writers show more activation in an area of the brain involved in logic, reasoning and the control of emotions – the prefrontal cortex. Its as if experience in writing teaches you to tame the generation of ideas and suppress the negative feelings that accompany self doubt.
If you keep at it, at some point you’ll find your voice, a place from where your ideas seem to spring forth with clarity and conviction. I’ve experienced glimmers of mine and its an exceptionally self-affirming experience.
Its not to say that regular blogging will eradicate all of the obstacles linked to writing, but what it will certainly do is help you to have faith in the process – that if you can just take that leap and begin putting down a few sentences, they will inevitably take on a life of their own. As the article progresses and you experience a sense of accomplishment, so the distress abates.
These habits tend to extend beyond the domain of writing. Alex from The Mindful Mermaid shares her experience: “I honestly never realized that blogging would help instill a more consistent work ethic in me. It’s really about doing a little bit each day to work towards your goals.”
Improvement of Writing Skills
Faith aside, regular reading and writing will, without a doubt, improve your writing skills. And if not your grammatical constructions per se, blogging will help you develop a style of writing that is accessible to a wide, public audience. This skill is invaluable as it can open up doors to careers in the journalistic and marketing field that you might not have previously considered.
As a postgraduate student, I have been writing for years, but I’ve adopted an instinctive style of writing that is academic – dry, lacking in personality, jargony. When I’m lazy, its very easy to revert to this style and when I do this, I start to lose my audience. Writing blog posts has given me the opportunity to question my approach and actively become aware of the changes that I need to work towards.
I’m not there yet… I’m getting there I think, and that’s ok. Tiffany Sun’s words from The Writing Cooperative resonated with me: “It’s good to feel bad sometimes, because usually that will push you to do better next time.”
We write to process and express our internal world but blogging takes place in a specific context and you won’t blog long without coming into contact with an online community of like-minded individuals.
In her book, Digital Sisterhood: A Memoir of Fierce Living Online, Ananda K.M Leeke writes about the online space as an empowering place for women to connect, speak openly, celebrate diversity and identify leadership archetypes.
I have read countless posts by individual bloggers who vouch for the supportive community that they have found through blogging. Sceptics will say that the friendliness is somewhat disingenuous, that site owners sweeten their words to maintain traffic to the site. But perhaps even if this is the case, is it such a bad thing in our times of social and political unrest?
In his 2016 TED Talk, Kiran Singh Sirah, president of the International Storytelling Center in Tennessee, Storytelling: A Peaceful Power, reminds us of the power of stories in times of discord and divisiveness. “Regardless of what is going on out there in the world, what truly matters is our humanity,” Sirah explains. “Stories help us understand one another on a human level.”
Even if you choose to keep your thoughts on your own blog and avoid interacting through comment forms on other people’s blogs, it is impossible not to sense the vast network of humans behind the words that you’ll likely draw inspiration and understanding from.
Of course, sometimes it’s a case of less inspiration and more self-comparison. I’m certainly no stranger to the feeling of self-doubt… that somehow my place is in the kids’ league. But challenging these feelings of incompetence is, in itself, a valuable exercise.
Confidence to Dare, to Dream
Perhaps not at the start, but after some time, you’ll want to reach a wider readership and this requires a lot of hustling. You don’t need to be comfortable with the concept of hustling before you start your blog. And that is the beauty of it. Almost as an organic process, a confidence develops – confidence to put yourself out there, to dream about future possibilities or simply make requests, such as to write as a guest on an established platform.
Learning to be more assertive and learning to ask is a transferable skill.
As Dr Robert London, author at Psychology Today reminds us, “you certainly do not want to encourage outright forceful or confrontational behaviors that would be counterproductive. Rather, what you are working toward is a motivated, active, and enthusiastic commitment”. Blogging offers that space of commitment, where previously aspirations might have been fleeting, easily dismissed.
You’ll set the pace and the important thing is not the gradient of incline, but simply that there is incline at all.
Beyond your own sense of personal agency, establishing a blog is like creating a portfolio. You might not know what it is you’re creating when you start out, but in time your writing and style will take on its own identifiable shape and you’ll discover your niche. You might find yourself walking down a completely unexpected path. Ask most bloggers and they would not have imagined the journey down which blogging has taken them. Many of these writers have now found financial freedom through their websites. Others will tell you about their personal journey of psychological growth.
Rachel from The Confused Millenial, began her blog on the backend of a Netflix spree after being fired from prestigious jobs twice in a row. She now runs her successful blog as a full-time business. There are countless other stories out there like this.
Patience & Perseverance
Ideas and dreams are easy to come by, but turning them into a digital, curated reality is a whole new ball game. Blogging will teach you to reign in that flight of ideas and find peace with only realising a small fraction of them, one at a time. No doubt, patience of this kind spills out over into other aspects of one’s life.
But of course, not all blogging is driven by such inspiration. The motivation to write is something that definitely waxes and wanes with one’s moods. Some days it feels like an insurmountable task to summon up thoughts worthy of being heard. If you find yourself still blogging at the 3 month mark, chances are you’ve learned patience and perseverance.
And you would have withstood the welcoming storm. Indeed, for start-up bloggers, the message out there on the web is loud and clear to the point of being overwhelming. There are a bazillion articles on how to boost your incoming traffic, how to properly utilise social media, how to improve the likelihood of Google finding your website, how to monetise your site, take better photos, etc, etc. It is nearly impossible to digest all of this as a newbie without feeling bogged down.
Often, my first impulse has been to abandon it all and run. But quite reliably, if you wait it out, what first seemed like an enormously complex and mystifying barrier passes over fairly smoothly and in its place an important lesson would have been learned.
Blogging is not quite the same as running your own online magazine. It is a whole lot more personal and if, like me, the exposure was your biggest point of hesitation, blogging will help you to be less guarded about the things you often choose to keep hidden.
Without a doubt, there is a line, but taking ownership of your positions and learning to be more open is part of self-acceptance. I think in many ways, figuring out what makes you tick (and what doesn’t) builds self-esteem, as if it is the shadows in our minds that are the real source of our anxiety. When it comes to debate, I often find myself holding back an opinion unless I feel confident in my conviction. Perhaps we carry ourselves like that too – that until we can say for sure who we are and what we’re about, we remain lingering back stage.
It can feel excruciating to “put yourself out there” for fear of being judged. In times like this, I think back to a book a good friend of mine recommended. Its called The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight and its all about the art of caring less about what other people think of you. You can watch her Ted Talk here.
Isn’t it a paradox, that to find strength you must embrace vulnerability. These ideas are beautifully put by Jillian from Montana Money Adventures after her first 6 months of blogging: “I’m growing too. The words are coming easier. My thoughts organize themselves a bit better. I’m learning to speak not just with authority but with vulnerability. To tell my stories in a way that inspires and instructs.”
A Life More Interesting
And finally, very often, your blog with its life in the digital ether will nonetheless spur you on to discover and pursue more interesting undertakings in the real world.
When an idea of something fun to do comes to mind, the memory triggers a small spike in dopamine and this keeps you motivated to get out and pursue exciting activities. On down days that little spike takes a rain check. It is times like these when a bit of external incentive is needed. And as Benjamin Franklin once claimed, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
So there it is. 10 ways that blogging can influence mental well-being. For those bloggers out there, I would love to hear your own unique experiences.