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See Inside August/September 2007

The Power of the Pen

Writing in a diary about a bad situation can help bring about a happy resolution--and maybe even improve your mental health

ONE WEDNESDAY MORNING an engineer named Marcus was called into his boss's office. The manager thanked Marcus for his 30 years of service to the firm and handed him his pink slip. A security officer escorted Marcus back to his office to clean out his desk and then to the building's exit. The same thing happened to 100 other engineers that day—the Dallas computer company they worked for laid them off without any notice and sent them on their way.

Psychologist James W. Pennebaker, then at Southern Methodist University, managed to recruit more than half of these men and women to take part in a simple experiment several months after they had been let go. “I have never worked with such a bitter and hostile group of research subjects,” remembers Pennebaker, now at the University of Texas at Austin. He asked everyone to spend 20 minutes a day for five consecutive days writing in a diary. Some members of the group were instructed to note how they spent their time each day; a second group was asked to write down their deepest feelings about the loss of their job; and the remaining volunteers were given no writing instruction at all.

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