James W. Pennebaker1
Although it is not fashionable in anthropology these days to suggest that there are universals, I would like to suggest that the act of translating upsetting experiences into words is associated with better physical and mental health in virtually all societies. Let me explain my thinking on this.
A large number of mammalian species, including humans, occasionally work at deceiving others outside their troup or living unit. To the outsiders, individuals attempt to appear stronger or weaker, healthier or sicker than they really are. Within human groups, people deceive not only outgroup members but ingroup members as well - spouses, children, village leaders. In truth, it is beyond my expertise to know if people in all human cultures behave counter to the established rules in their society and, if they do, they occasionally keep their actions secret. Similarly, I cannot attest to whether all human cultures have words such as “lie, ” “deceive, ” “trick, ” “shame, ” or “guilt” in their vocabularies. Whatever the final judgement as to the universality of deception, our data would suggest that, to the extent that individuals must actively conceal important information from others in their social network, the act of concealment should be stressful. 2
A second universal that is relevant to my thesis is that all human groups use language and, with it, create and tell stories. Further, the purpose of narratives is to structure people’s experiences and to find meaning in complex, unpredictable events.
I come to this essay not as an expert in culture but as a psychologist who was initially interested in the use of writing as a way to affect people’s health. Through a series of experiments, my colleagues and I discovered that when people put their emotional upheavals into words, their physical and mental health improved markedly. Further, the act of constructing stories appeared to be a natural human process that helped individuals to understand their experiences and themselves. This work started over a decade ago when, as part of a laboratory experiment, I asked students to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about traumatic experiences. Much more happened than just their writing about traumatic experiences, however. The writing exercise often changed their lives. There was something remarkable about their expressing themselves in words.