Waseda University Researcher Explains How Writing Letters To Yourself Can Boost Your Mood

Researcher Eriko Sugimori discusses self-compassionate writing and strategies to leverage its benefits.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 18, 2024

A recent paper published in Frontiers in Psychology explored the effects of writing compassionately to one's past and future selves.

I recently spoke to Eriko Sugimori from the Human Sciences faculty at Waseda University, lead author of the paper, to discuss the impact of writing letters about social and individual experiences to one's past and future selves, specifically examining its effects on mood. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to explore the effects of writing to your past-self and future-self?

There is a popular song in Japan titled "Letter: Greetings to you at 15-years old", that I find inspiring. Here is an excerpt of the song:

"Dear you, who's reading this letter,

Where are you and what are you doing now?

For me, who's 15-years old,

There are seeds of worries I can't tell everyone.

If it's a letter addressed to my future self,

Surely I can confide truly to myself…

The rough seas of youth may be tough,

But row your boat of dreams on, towards the shores of tomorrow.

Now, please don't be defeated and please don't shed a tear,

When you're about to lose hope,

Just believe in your voice…"

There are three main functional roles of autobiographical memory that serve as a focus of research interest:

  • A self-directed function to maintain continuity and consistency
  • A directive function to refer to the past and direct judgment and behavior
  • A social function to form and promote interpersonal relationships

The act of writing a letter to oneself is considered to fall into the self-directed and directive functions. We wanted to examine the psychological effects of consciously making people aware of maintaining continuity to themselves.

Originally, we predicted that writing a letter to one's past self would provide comfort, and writing a letter to one's future self would create optimism. In reality, however, writing a letter to one's past self makes one feel positive, while writing a letter to one's future self makes one feel anxious.

In what ways do you think the act of writing about social experiences versus individual experiences contributes to mood regulation?

Social support and socializing with others are important parts of resilience. Previous studies have shown that older adults who are socially connected have a lower risk of dementia. Feeling connected to oneself and others seems to be important. The fact that someone is watching over them, encouraging them, and helping them with things they cannot handle on their own is thought to create a sense of security, leading them to expect that this will continue to be the case in the future.

Do you have any words of wisdom for individuals who want to incorporate writing practices into their daily lives?

Let's say you write a letter to yourself on the night of a bad day. First of all, you have to cultivate a sense of compassion toward yourself, to praise yourself for living through such a bad day. You also need to be aware that there are people around you who will provide help and watch over you, in other words, people who are on your side.

In what ways can the findings of your research contribute to self-compassion interventions and emotional well-being?

It is valuable not only in the sense that people need to extend their present selves to their past selves, but also in the sense that people have been able to describe the importance of extending themselves in terms of their relationships with others around them.

Based on your findings, are there any avenues you would like to explore in the future?

I want to explore how to write a letter to one's future self in a way that will lead one to happiness. In this research, we asked participants to write a piece of advice that they imagined their future selves would find useful. But, next, I want to explore what it might be like if they wrote to their future selves expressing their current anxieties and imagining what advice they might be offered.

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