Can you write your way to happiness?

A growing number of diarists are using expressive writing or ‘bullet journalling’ to improve their health and productivity. But does keeping a daily log actually work?

”This groundbreaking tool will change your life,” claims MindJournal, a £9.99 collection of quizzes and writing exercises that it claims will “encourage you to be more honest with how you’re feeling”. Aimed at a male audience, it has a testosterone-fuelled tagline: “Become a stronger version of the man you already are.”

It’s not unique; in bookshops, it has quickly evident that the humble notebook is having an overhaul. Prescriptive travel diaries (“Enjoy the lightly guided prompts for agendas, lists and observations”) bump up against journals claiming to focus on inner truth (“Featuring over 70 thought-provoking quotes from fellow self-improvers, this journal is great for both perfectionists and failures!”), while the latest fad for bullet journalling – a convoluted to-do list system – has swept the internet, inundating Instagram with a pages of artfully annotated checklists.

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‘It was quasi-religious’: the great self-esteem con

In the 1980s, Californian politician John Vasconcellos set up a task force to promote high self-esteem as the answer to all social ills. But was his science based on a lie?

In 2014, a heartwarming letter sent to year 6 pupils at Barrowford primary school in Lancashire went viral. Handed out with their Key Stage 2 exam results, it reassured them: “These tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique… They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister.”

At Barrowford, people learned, teachers were discouraged from issuing punishments, defining a child as “naughty” and raising their voices. The school’s guiding philosophy, said headteacher Rachel Tomlinson, was that kids were to be treated with “unconditional positive regard”.

To get ahead in the 1980s, you had to be ruthless, relentless. You had to believe in yourself

Vasco’s credibility turned on a single fact: that the professors had confirmed his hunch. The only problem? They hadn’t

What had really happened at that meeting? I found the answer on an old audio cassette, hissy and faint

Related: The appeal of narcissists: why do we love people who’d rather love themselves?

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In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer’s – review

Joseph Jebelli’s personal study of a disease that has reached epidemic proportions offers the latest research – but not much hope

The human animal derives its humanity from language and memory. What are we, without memory ? The short answer is: wild beasts.

Memory gives us personality, emotional intelligence, family relations, and community. Memory anchors us in space and time. It defines the parameters of existence. Paradoxically, it might even confirm the futility of existence.

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Back, Sack & Crack (& Brain): a graphic memoir with balls

From his back to his stomach to his testicles, Robert Wells had been in pain for decades – but no one in the NHS believed him. So he turned it all into a hilarious graphic novel

Right now, life isn’t so bad for Robert Wells. “I get the odd uncomfortable day,” says the 48-year-old cartoonist. “But it’s not a major issue. You won’t catch me riding a bike, though.”

As recounted in his commendably – almost excruciatingly – honest new graphic novel, Wells has been experiencing chronic health problems since 1990, most notably a persistently upset stomach and a perennially aching right testicle. Which partly explains why his book is called Back, Sack & Crack (& Brain). If this sounds funny, he’s OK with that. “The main reason I wanted to do the book was because I could see quite a lot of opportunities for humour.”

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‘I was dehumanised’: Lemn Sissay on hearing his harrowing abuse report live on stage

In a blistering one-off show, poet Lemn Sissay heard – for the first time – the record of his suffering as a child in care. He explains why the theatre was the safest place to relive his beatings and betrayal

I have never been in a theatre audience like this one – so loving, supportive, involved. Then again, there has probably never been a production quite like this. It is the ultimate verbatim theatre. What’s more, part of the verbatim is happening live, unscripted, in front of us.

Lemn Sissay’s The Report, at the Royal Court in London, is just that: the reading of – and his reaction to – the psychologist’s report about the abuse he suffered over 18 years as a child in the care system. It is a one-off production. This is, by turns, theatre as shock treatment, theatre as therapy, theatre as protest and, perhaps ultimately, theatre as survival. We come away with a microscopically detailed portrait of the poet – and the system that did its best to destroy him.
Sissay, now 49, was born to an Ethiopian mother in Wigan. She was a young woman – a girl really – who had come to study in Britain and found herself pregnant. She was placed in a mother and baby unit and, at two months old, Sissay was put in care. His mother was asked to sign adoption papers and refused – she wanted her son back when she could manage better. Social services ignored her wishes, telling his long-term foster parents to treat this as adoption. Sissay was renamed Norman by his social worker, who happened to be called Norman.

Related: Lemn Sissay: ‘I would die if I didn’t live in the present’

At the end, everyone cheers. You sense they would rather just hug Sissay

Open all doors.
Open all senses.
Open all defences.
Ask, what were these closed for?

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Virgin Money chief: ‘I have battled with mental health all my life’

Jayne-Anne Gadhia meant to tell just the Virgin Money story in her autobiography and not reveal her struggles with depression, but now proceeds of her book are going to the charity Heads Together

When Jayne-Anne Gadhia was once turned down for a promotion, her boss provided two reasons for his decision: she lacked a thick skin and the ability to bullshit. Twenty five years on – and after making it to the top of the banking sector to become chief executive of Virgin Money – Gadhia reckons she still doesn’t possess either of those characteristics.

Rather than growing a thick skin, Gadhia sticks her fingers in her ears to illustrate her own “la la la” approach to put-downs. And she insists her motto of “ebo” (wanting to make everyone better off) is not nonsense.

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Postnatal depression is not a new phenomenon, only a chronically ignored one

One in seven women experiences postnatal mental illness every year in Australia, approximately 100,000 new parents

I take three pink pills every morning, small ones, kept on my bedside table in a bright yellow box. Because they look so enticing and so sugary-sweet, I swallow them in full view of my son, part of our morning ritual before I drop him off at care. He knows that they are “Mummy medicine”, pills I need to keep me healthy, and that without them I feel very tired, and sometimes sad. At four years old, he has watched me swallow pills for half of his short life.

We’ve talked about the fact this medicine is just for adults; he knows to keep his distance from anything in sealed-up foil. I am grateful that he accepts my need for medication as part of normal life; I am grateful for a chance to feel “normal”, insofar as antidepressants keep me on an even keel. Mostly I am grateful that his memories stretch back for so short a time, and that he’s never seen me deep in the grips of depression.

Related: Ariel Levy, Krissy Kneen, Cat Marnell – literary highlights for Australia in March

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Sarah Wilson on living with anxiety: there’s no sugarcoating mental illness

Her cookbook I Quit Sugar made her the face of health and wellness, but Wilson’s memoir, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, traverses much darker terrain

If you’ve visited a bookshop in the last few years, you would have found it hard to avoid a tanned and lean Sarah Wilson beaming out at you from the covers on the front shelves. Her cookbooks, I Quit Sugar and Simplicious, have been bestsellers, and her name is synonymous with terms such as “clean living” and “vitality”.

Wilson’s latest book couldn’t be more different. The cover is dark blue, with an illustration of a gloomy octopus – even the title itself seems like something from a poetry collection with a small print run.

Related: I’ve heard all the arguments against a sugar tax. I’m still calling for one in Australia | Sarah Wilson

Related: Brigid Delaney’s diary | Defy the ‘wellness’ industry: here are some simple ways to feel better in 2017

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Joanna Cannon vows to keep working in NHS after £300,000 book deal

Novelist who began writing to relieve the stress of her psychiatry job says literary success will not stop her listening to ‘real voices’ in hospital

A bestselling debut novelist who wrote her book in a hospital car park as stress release from her job as a psychiatrist is to return to the NHS. Her decision comes despite a £300,000 deal for her second book and a contract for two more novels.

Joanna Cannon, whose first book The Trouble With Goats and Sheep has now sold more than 100,000 copies in paperback in the UK and has been optioned for film by the makers of the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, said she was returning to the health service because she missed her patients.

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The everyday trauma of childbirth made me stop at one child

Polly Clark believes that, for too many women, the shock of childbirth and its aftermath is akin to experiencing war, leaving them adrift, and absent in a profound way – but no one notices

I once caught a glimpse of my medical records moving from trolley to receptionist’s desk at the GP. Perhaps they have long been computerised, but then they were housed in a large, weary-looking file. They had the heft of a first draft of a novel, a comprehensive and messy catalogue of pains and breaks, results and dead ends and cures. They were nothing unusual for a woman my age. One thing not in there, though, was any reference to or diagnosis of the dominant ill of our time: depression. Nor anxiety, insomnia, or any mental struggle whatsoever. No antidepressant has passed my lips; I have troubled only one counsellor briefly – when my father died.

However, I know for sure that, after the birth of my daughter and for a few years after, I was not in the world as I knew it previously.

Related: It costs £83 to treat postnatal depression. So why must so many women suffer? | Vonny Moyes

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