Episode 287 – Writing and happiness with Megan Hayes

Megan Hayes‘The individual is a research project, every time we try something new we’re being a kind of scientist in our own life.’

Megan Hayes studied the links between writing and happiness, and the first thing she discovered is that it’s both more powerful and more complex than we think. Yes, ‘getting it all down on paper’ is a great way to process a difficult experience, but it turns out a writing habit can also help us be more creative, more energised and more effective OFF the page. 

We talk about accessing the full range of voices within you – not just the shoutiest – to resource yourself fully, self-efficacy and sense-making, the ghost of the English teacher, the power of NOT being a writer, and so much more. 

If you listen to nothing else this week, listen to this. 



Megan’s site: http://meganchayes.com/

Megan on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/megan.c.hayes/

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Megan Hayes who is equal parts author, researcher, and relentless optimist. She’s written four books, most recently The Joy of Writing Things Down. Her MSc and PhD research explored the links between writing and happiness. She’s a teacher of joyful writing habits, offering a range of workshops in her own online classroom, after several years lecturing in higher education, where she helped to set up the UK’s first MA in creative writing and well-being.

Megan’s also the founder of the Positive Journal approach to personal writing, the science-backed way to write yourself happy.

So welcome to the show, Megan.

Megan Hayes: Thank you so much for having me, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Alison Jones: Oh, it’s so good to have you here. And you know, where do we start with all of this?

Let’s start with the link between writing and happiness and the science bit of that. Why does that work and why don’t more of us do it?

Megan Hayes: Well, the science behind it is interesting because I think people assume that because, science being science, that there’s one reason why this thing is helpful for us and it’s actually not the case at all. And it’s one of those things that the more research is done around writing and well-being, the more questions there are, the more we know we don’t know.

So there’s no real kind of one reigning theory. The big one that people assume is that when we write things down, there’s a kind of purging or a kind of release, we’ve let something go. Catharsis, exactly, that we’ve been holding onto.

And I think anyone who’s written personally in a diary, in a journal, knows that feeling and it is helpful and it’s great. But I’ve always been interested in what else is going on. And it turns out there’s a whole realm of other things going on. One of which is meaning making. And I come from more of a sort of positive psychology background and this is where I find writing the most fascinating.

There’s a kind of narrative structure that we’re forming out of our experience. And I personally resonate with this the most. I think this is probably one of the principal ways that writing is good for us because it affirms self and experience.

And it’s interesting because whatever kind of writing we’re doing, whether it’s fiction, whether it’s a business book, whether it’s in a journal and it’s very private, we are kind of witnessing ourselves on the page. There’s making marks, which is a very human thing. Hey, look, there I am. And I think there’s something in that.

So as much as the research goes on and on and on, for me personally, I think it’s that kind of self-affirming, narrative structure that we’re giving to our experience. And in terms of why more people don’t do it, I mean, what I feel about writing and wellbeing is there are no kind of have tos. And I think if it’s something that you approach as a have to, the joy quickly goes out of it.

You can tell from the title of the book, The Joy of Writing Things Down, I’m big on joy. I’m big on these kinds of things being pleasurable, because if they are, we’re more likely to do them. You know, that’s how organisms work. We’re attracted to things that are going to feel good. And I think in that sense, people perhaps don’t do it, I mean, there are many reasons why people wouldn’t write but it’s that element is missing.

The pleasure element is missing and maybe there’s self-criticism. Maybe there’s bad memories of writing at school and getting awful feedback on an essay or being told you were rubbish and we internalise this. I think it’s the have tos and the kind of soaked up criticism over the years, or I can’t write, who am I to think, you know, this is a bit self-indulgent, whatever it is that your inner critic is saying. I think that’s what usually gets in people’s way from writing things.

Alison Jones: Yes, and we’re going to step back because I want to unpack some stuff there. The narrative thing I think is so interesting and that idea of witnessing yourself on the page and validating, you know, but also making sense of it at the same time, because frankly not many of us have got somebody, unless you’ve got a really, really patient dog, who’s happy to just sit and let us talk that stuff through, or we paying a therapist to do it.

But actually, on the page you can be as self-indulgent as you like, can’t you? It’s your sense-making and you know, you don’t have to wait for somebody else to tell their story, which is helpful.

But that thing about us being storytelling people is really important. I mean, neuroscientists have sort of said, you know, our default mode is storytelling, isn’t it? That’s what we do, we just sit and witter away little stories to ourselves when we’re not doing anything else. It’s amazing.

Megan Hayes: And I think that narrativizing yourself or what some researchers call self-mythologizing is so empowering, that word gets kind of overused, but the idea, in psychology it’s called self-efficacy, the idea that we can have impact, that I can, you know, that feeling that we all know when we have it and when we don’t and the difference it can make. If we feel that a task is beyond us, whatever that task might be, we can give up before we’ve even started.

And I think that’s another element of writing that I found in my research to be, when people talk about, because I do qualitative research, when people talk about writing going well for them or what it’s offering them. I think there’s often an element of that self-authoring, that idea that we are in charge of our own experience. That is so incredibly powerful in all walks of life, you know, whether it’s business and our work or our relationships or personal life, our lives as a whole. The feeling that we can make things happen is a very powerful one.

And I think writing is a sort of simulation of that because we can make things happen on the page, we can make sense of them. Especially when we get into fiction and this is why I like creative forms of writing as well as more reflective. And I don’t see the two as all that different but that idea that we can simulate real experience, we can show ourselves what’s possible on the page and then go out and try and live it.

And you can see then how we can move so far from that cathartic sort of Oh, I’ve had an experience, I’ve written it down, now I feel better: that starts to look very simplistic when you get into this idea of, well, what happens when I leave the page? What do I go and do next? You know? And I’ve always found that very fascinating.

It’s come up in my research, that bridge that takes us back off into real life.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s sort of dipping in, trying something out in the safe space with no consequence, just seeing where it goes. And it reminds me too, of what athletes do with this sort of visualization. It’s, you know, you’re practising or rehearsing for the moments of success. And that in itself makes the success more likely.

It feels like you’ve got that kind of rehearsal visualization space on the page for you.

Megan Hayes: There are so many layers because it’s got that element of, sort of future planning if you like, or visualization. And it’s also got that sort of making sense of what’s happened in the past and it’s got that well, what’s going on for me right at the moment.

And that’s where you get the sort of narrative of the past and the present, the beginning end of self, is this idea of what psychologists call a narrative identity.

I think writing is a way that we are sort of mapping all of that out. We’re looking forward, but we’re also able to look back and kind of make some kind of integration of those things.

Alison Jones: And we’re talking primarily about personal experience at the moment and integrating all of that, but actually the sense-making piece that you talked about earlier, that works for kind of any situation that you’re facing doesn’t it, and that works for a management problem or a new product that you’re creating, just as much as kind of processing the conflict situation you had last week.

Megan Hayes: Absolutely. And I think that, again, that kind of creativity, because I think this self-efficacy that was talking about and the creativity, they overlap because to feel I can do something and if it’s a very tough thing in business or wherever, it might be in your life, you have to have a certain amount of creative thought. You have to sort of think outside the box.

Well, that’s a really overused phrase, but that’s exactly what creativity is. And so while it might seem a bit daft for an individual, who’s maybe a CEO or something, to sit down and write a story, there’s actually immense power in training that part of the brain, if you like.

I mean, I don’t tend to think of it that way, I’m a bit more of a creative person, but I think that the brain works in those different ways, doesn’t it? And we can get stuck in logic, material, truth, what’s in front of us. Which of course is very powerful and useful. But when we start to think outside the lines, we get new ideas about how we want to approach a project or how we can approach an interpersonal situation, whatever it might be.

And writing of all forms, whether it’s mind mapping, anything down from mind mapping, a to-do list, can help us make sense and be a bit creative with our ideas all the way up to, I don’t know, writing a novel and thinking about how we might live our lives differently because we sort of experimented with that character we’re writing. You know, it’s a whole wide spectrum and I think that’s why I find it so endlessly fascinating.

Alison Jones: You’re really selling it. I mean, I was already enthusiastic, I’m on the ceiling now.

You kind of brought in the ghost of the English teacher, kind of looking over your shoulders, one of the reasons that people don’t do it, that sense of, well, I’m not a writer and I’m not entirely sure where to put the apostrophe in its, you know, all that kind of stuff.

Tell me a little bit more about that. That obviously inhibits people. How do you get people to overcome that and just write for themselves and do the work so that they get the benefit?

Megan Hayes: Well, I think it’s like anything, there’s never one single approach and everyone’s English teacher ghost will be slightly different, maybe one was a bit more mean. And it’s not always just the teacher, it’s the critical parent that we had, or the bully at school, you know, we all have an inner critic and we recognize that voice for us. We kind of know who that might be.

Places to start if somebody’s feeling kind of crippled by that, the first is to kind of make a deal with your inner critic that you’re going to throw away what you’ve written. I think that really helps because there’s this tendency, when people decide they’re going to start a journal, for example…

Alison Jones: …they buy a beautiful book…

Megan Hayes: to buy something really beautiful and get a lovely fountain pen, and then go and sit by a window, with a gentle breeze, I’m going to pen my life story here. And what does that do? It just clams us up immediately. And the idea that someone’s going to find this or that we’re going to read back on it and cringe or whatever it might be.

I think one way to bypass that is loose sheets of paper, Post-its, I’m a big fan of writing on just on a post-it because it’s so quick, easy, screw it up, throw it away at the end. And then you get into this practice of maybe writing a bit more honestly, and it is a practice and it does take time. And I find, you know, I have journaled as long as I can write, pretty much.

And I’ve written books and I write fiction and still I find I’ll write something and I think I’m not really, I haven’t got to the heart of my experience, so I’m not being quite genuine. And maybe I have to stop myself and start again. So I think those are some ways to approach it.

You can also, something I like to advise people to do, and it’s in The Joy of Writing Things Down actually, is to have quite literally a sort of dialogue with the inner critic. So get a piece of paper, write down who are you to your inner critic and explore that, explore who they are. Because I don’t think we are ever able to completely eradicate that voice.

And I don’t think that we’d want to really, because ultimately the critic plays its role, doesn’t it? It’s trying to protect us. It doesn’t want us to look silly. You know, we don’t ever want to completely get rid of that voice, but we can work with it. So having a dialogue saying, who are you, maybe sketching out that person, thinking kind of what they look like?

Are they literally the English teacher or are they more an amalgamation of several different bullies that we’ve met in our life and times? And you know, ask them about themselves. What do you want from me? Why are you stopping me going here? And see what emerges on the page as a kind of journaling exercise.

I think that can be quite a powerful way of just listening to what’s being said in those critical self-censoring moments.

Alison Jones: Yes, getting to know your Chimp. I love that. And actually the dialogue structure is really helpful for all sorts of things, isn’t it? I quite often recommend people do it to future you, the you that solved the problem you’re facing. Just ask them how they did it. Or, you know, if you can’t be coached by Richard Branson, then you know, Richard, what would you do?

And that sort of sense of just bringing in a completely different perspective and it can completely transform your writing because it takes you out of yourself, doesn’t it?

Megan Hayes: Absolutely. And I think it can feel a bit weird if you’re not used to writing in that way, to literally map things out as a dialogue, but the more you do it, the more I think you get into what is actually a more precise version of what it is to have a self. Because we have this idea that, you know, the Descartes’, I think therefore I am, that there is an I, that there is a single one. Psychologically, that’s actually not really accurate for what inner experience is like, you know, and take the example of the inner critic. There’s the I, the you who wants to do the book or, you know, write the project and there’s the inner critic. So we’ve already got two people there, within the oneself and, you know, many psychologists talk about a society of selves you know, there’s multiplicity to who we are.

And once we start getting into dialogue and practicing that, we find there are many characters in there and our job is kind of to be the integrating force, the CEO that draws all those voices into union, you know, does a kind of town hall meeting if you like.

But when we first begin, it can feel a bit it could be a bit locked out

I find it very helpful because we do experience in our work, in our personal lives, a lot of conflict often. And we can totalize, we can think, I’m finding this work project really tough right now. Therefore, we draw the conclusion oh, you know, I’m rubbish at my job or something.

There’s one part of you that’s feeling, this is really tough, I am rubbish at my job. There’s another part, you know, we’ve got this, we’ve done this before. There’s another part of you that’s saying you know we could approach it this way. And once you sort of get that multiplicity and start practicing kind of engaging with those different voices, which I think writing really helps us to do. You know, you find that you can get much more creative solutions as we were talking about before.

Alison Jones: That’s absolutely brilliant. I love that sort of town hall meeting of all your different split personalities, it’s brilliant, and also finding the most useful and helpful personality for the job rather than the one that’s shouting the loudest, which is almost certainly the one with the least control.

Megan Hayes: Yes.

Alison Jones: And the strongest negative emotion at that moment.

Megan Hayes: That’s a really interesting point, ‘the one that’s shouting the loudest’, because I talk a lot about the idea of a positive journal and drawing on our positive emotions, our strengths, our positive resources. The reason I do that is not because I think those experiences, those emotions, are better, but that what’s often shouting the loudest, as you say, is the, I don’t know what it might be the grief, the anger, the negative emotions, the overwhelming shouty feelings.

The negative emotions, you know, they have that characteristic, they will not be ignored. If we feel really angry there’s no ignoring it, it bubbles up out of us, doesn’t it? Whereas positive emotions are much more subtle.

They’re fleeting, we miss them if we don’t pay attention. And I think the natural way that people come to the page often is when they’re going through a tough experience. And I’ll always say that’s a wonderful entry point into writing, a powerful one, an important one, but there is so much more that we can get from writing, if we opt, for example, to capture more positive parts of our experience.

Alison Jones: Yes that’s wonderful. And one of the things that I loved about The Joy of Writing Things Down was the way that you kind of took people from where they are. You’re like, do you know what, you’re already writing? You might not think you do it, but you’re writing lists, you’re writing post-its, you’re doing all this sort of stuff, notes to self, start there and build up.

So just tell us a little bit more about that.

Megan Hayes: I think, as you say, well as you asked kind of right at the beginning, what stops people doing it? And I mentioned that thing about the have tos, I think it’s really worth examining what you think writing is, because is it sitting down, getting up at 5:00 AM and sitting down for two hours and writing your memoir or something?

Because of course, you know, that’s huge, and you’re not just going to slip that into the moments of your everyday life. If you take the approach of thinking, well, hang on, where am I already doing this? You will be astounded how much you’re writing. Just take, you know, us and our phones, sitting down, we all have notes on our phones, we’re all tapping away on chat apps, talking to people, we’re all writing emails all day long, aren’t we?

So we already have writing habits and I think, you know, there’s all kinds of psychology around habits, and I am by no means an expert on that topic, but if you can attach a helpful writing habit to a writing habit that you’re already doing. There’s more likelihood that you’re going to actually find the time to do it, and it can sometimes be not adding a new habit.

So one of the things I say in the book, is you know, if you write a shopping list, maybe add your gratitude practice on the end of your shopping list. So that’s one idea, that might be useful if you’re trying to write a gratitude practice, which by the way, I don’t think is the be all and end all of writing positively.

But it might be just a slightly different approach to something you do, such as your emails, just thinking about how, for example, you connect with people when you email, are you just spending the day saying, you know, I’ve attached a document, get that back to me by the end of the day and not actually taking the opportunity to make any human connection, you know, and it might be as simple as asking someone how they are and trying to remember something that they told you before. So that you’re actually getting a genuine moment of connection in something you’re already doing, which is email.

And even that simple switch I found to be very powerful, especially in the last couple of years when more of us are just working at home and not interacting with people in the day. So email is taking on an extra significance, I think.

So that’s just one example of finding something you’re doing all the time and approaching it a bit differently.

Alison Jones: And so email and post-its and all these things that actually are already part of our day, we’re all writing all the time, we just don’t typically think about it. So as you say, just attaching a little bit more intention and a bit more expansion into the writing that we’re doing. It’s tiny, but it could have incredible effects. I love that.

Megan, I want to ask you about your own writing practice. So we have already established beyond any doubt, that there are loads of different types and flavours of writing, and you can do it in lots of different ways. For you, do you have a sort of conscious shift between I’m now writing my book, I’m doing my journal, I’m pitching a business proposal?

What are the differences between those for you and how do you sort of signal them to yourself and what processes and systems do you use?

Megan Hayes: Well, I definitely have more than one mode of writing, but the more research I’ve done on this topic, the more I’ve written over time, the more I’ve realized there are so many overlaps and I think this is true of research, but you know, the individual is kind of a research project, every time we try something new or a little habit change, you know, we’re being a kind of scientist in our own life.

I remember I forget the name, but I read a brilliant quote once about research and how the most interesting discoveries happen on the borders of disciplines. I’m an interdisciplinary scholar in the sense that I’ve got a big grounding in the humanities, but I’ve also gone across to psychology.

And for me, there’s so much power in that thinking about something from both those perspectives and challenging yourself to move from one to the other. That’s where we get the freshest ideas.

Alison Jones: That’s where creativity comes, isn’t it. It’s just bringing two different, unlike things together and seeing something new.

Megan Hayes: Exactly. And I think that has played out in my own writing habits because, so there’s a scholar, Peter Elbow who wrote a lot about the practice of free writing. Some people have heard this term, or they know about The Morning Pages, which is another version of it by Julia Cameron. It’s this idea we just write without any attention, you know, that we get rid of that inner critic, there’s no attention to grammar. There’s no attention to even making sense. It’s just the sort of warm up exercise. And Peter Elbow was a big advocate for whenever we’re stuck in any kind of writing, he used to talk about when he would be marking his students, so when he’d be writing the feedback sheets for them and he would get a bit stuck, he would turn to this tool of free writing and kind of get out of his own way. Stop thinking about, I have to make perfect sense here and just get some words on the page, because of course we can always edit.

And so for me, I found the big projects, the books, or the big work projects, whatever it might be, they’re where we tend to get a bit stunted, we get writer’s block that kind of thing. Whereas I’m rarely if ever, blocked when I’m writing in my journal, because I have that free writing spirit there. I don’t expect anyone’s going to read it. And that that’s where the power comes. So actually I found moving between the two to be very, very helpful. I now have a practice of taking little insights from my journal, putting them into my professional projects or taking that spirit of writing in the journal to my professional projects.

In terms of systems habits, I am a creative person, so I can tend to be a bit more sort of just slap-dash with things. But I do find that a deadline will always really get me going with a big project. And of course, with a journal there doesn’t tend to be deadlines, it’s much more sort of personal, explorative writing practice.

But in terms of getting my books done, I definitely have to access that little part of myself that is the teacher, is the kind of disciplined one and set myself sort of false deadlines. Or of course I’ll have real ones if I’m working with an editor. And so I think that’s always the difference. My natural state is to be very free and explorative, and then sometimes with the professional projects, it’s a bit more about reigning myself in and not letting myself go too much on a tangent, which can of course happen when you’re trying to write a book and suddenly you’re writing a different book that you didn’t mean to write and you have to bring yourself back.

So I think that that’s one of the big differences, but definitely the spirit of similarity and working at the borders of all those different forms, is something that’s been really powerful for me in my own writing.

Alison Jones: And the individuals inside you, as you say, you’ve got that kind of the rules-based project manager inside you, who’s just keeping you on track along with the kind of free spirit, and recognizing that they’re both just aspects of you and that they can work together.

That’s really cool.

And obviously most people listening to this are interested in business books and business writing. So, I mean you’ve given us actually probably about 120 different tips that people can go away and use like today.

But if I asked you, you know, held a gun to your head and said, what’s your one best tip for somebody who wants to write a business book, but they wouldn’t consider themselves a writer.

What would you say?

Megan Hayes: I would say that therein lies your power, that not considering yourself a writer, because as soon as you consider yourself a writer, capital W, then you’re into all kinds of frameworks that are best busted out of, I think. I’d say, you know, not to sound cliche, but it’s the uniqueness of you and your idea is always going to be what’s the most relatable.

So picking up on anything that’s too shiny, too rote, too kind of been done before, people don’t see it, you know, it’s that idea of the purple cow. Take the fact that you’re not a writer and you’re not sure about what you’re doing and use that as the fuel for actually making your writing much more relatable because you’re not setting yourself up for some guru on high.

Because I don’t think most people resonate with that type of writing anyway, personally.

Alison Jones: That’s a brilliant way of turning your kind of imposter syndrome into your sort of inner superhero. Yes, genius. Thank you.

And I always ask guests as well to recommend a business book, now I say a business book, it doesn’t have to be a business book, but a book that you think is really useful for business people to read. What would you say?

Megan Hayes: Well, when you asked me to think about that question, I did immediately think of Purple Cow, because I think for me…

Alison Jones: Seth Godin.

Megan Hayes: That was a book that was so influential to me, sort of just owning my individuality, but I decided I wasn’t going to go with that one because I’m sure other people would have recommended that one and it’s so, so popular.

And I thought of a kind of non-business book that perhaps has helped me most with my business, On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers of course all about psychology, he was a famous psychotherapist, he sort of invented modern psychotherapy.

You know, everyone thinks of Freud as the big name in psychotherapy, but in terms of how it’s practised now, I think Roger actually was much more influential. But what I love about that book is it’s all about how we relate, how we relate with self, how we relate with others. And I mean, business is nothing if not relationships. And I think the more we can know about how to relate, how to make others feel heard, how to make sure that we are heard, how to communicate, understand where people are coming from, you know, the better we can do in any walk of life, but business is just one of them.

So that for me is an excellent book if you want to understand how you tick and how others tick and how you can sort of bridge the gap between you.

Alison Jones: I love that, what a great recommendation. And I love the way, too, that you sneakily got two recommendations in there without appearing to, very, very smart. Don’t think I didn’t notice.

Megan, that was absolutely brilliant. And just so much stuff there. The transcript of this will be on the shownotes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com.

And I really, really recommend that people go and read it because there’s an awful lot in here today.

Where can people find out more about your books, Megan, and the work you do?

Megan Hayes: So my books, my general website is meganchayes.com. Just a bit of my bio and my background there. If people are specifically interested in this idea of positive journaling that I’ve developed, then that’s positivejournal.org. Social media wise, I don’t do a lot, but I am on Instagram, megan.c.hayes

So if anyone’s interested in my work and they want to come and give me a DM on Instagram, I’d love to chat with people. So thank you so much for having me on, I’ve had a blast.

Alison Jones: Oh, it’s been absolutely brilliant. And genuinely could have talked to you all day. Thank you so much for your time today, Megan.

Megan Hayes: Thanks.

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