After her husband of eleven years, Dave Goldberg, tragically lost his life while exercising during a vacation in 2015, Sheryl Sandberg entered a state of shock. In the wake of her husband’s unexpected passing, the successful Facebook COO felt her life unraveling. At the age of 45 she became a single mom to her two children, adopting a host of new responsibilities at home while trying to maintain her bearings at the social media giant. Sandberg found herself pulled in multiple new directions while simultaneously trying to grapple with the grief that accompanies the unexpected loss of a spouse.
Option B documents the days and months following the tragic death of Sandberg’s beloved husband. In the memoir, which she co-wrote with friend and Wharton business school psychology professor Adam Grant, Sandberg explores the trials and triumphs that defined her life during an exceptionally challenging period of loss, reconciliation, and rebuilding. Grant, whose non-fiction bestseller Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (2016) I highly recommend, provides scientific commentary to explain the mechanisms behind Sandberg’s personal and professional struggles as she and her family strove to re-direct their lives in the disorienting wake of tragedy.
Among the strategies that Sandberg adopted to deal with her grief, uncertainty, and fear was journaling. She declares, “Journaling became a key part of my recovery” and “[it] helped me process my overwhelming feelings and my all-too-many regrets” (p. 67). Option B features a half-dozen pages on which she surveys research about the psychological impacts of journaling, and then documents the actual techniques that she used — with both a computer and a notebook — after her husband’s death. Based on her commentary, she maintains at least one of these techniques today.
Sandberg cites research by psychologist James W. Pennebaker, who found that college students who journaled about traumatic experiences for fifteen minutes a day for only four days realized better emotional and physical gains than did a control group who wrote about general (i.e. non-emotional) topics (p. 62). In the book’s endnotes she comments that “research [from a range of scholars from the past twenty years] also suggests that journaling works best when we write privately, just for ourselves, and describe facts and feelings; that men tend to benefit a bit more from journaling than women since they’re more likely to bottle up their feelings; and that people with more health problems and a history of trauma or stress show the greatest benefits” (p. 194).
In addition to citing scientific research, Sandberg also shares stories of other individuals who have used journaling to help themselves work through struggles and rebuild after hardships. One of those people is Catherine Hoke, a venture capitalist turned social justice activist and entrepreneur. After a painful divorce and an unrelated scandal that devastated Hoke’s advocacy work with adult prisoners in Texas, she entered a period of personal and professional crisis. To her surprise, writing became an outlet — and a form of salvation. Sandberg quotes Hoke as saying, “Journaling isn’t exactly meditating. But it helped me quiet myself and reflect. I was able to put words to my feelings and unpack them” (p. 62).
Putting words to feelings — and words to experiences — helps us better think about them and, hopefully, understand them and their power. Adam Grant shared two journaling techniques that Sandberg adopted and found very helpful:
- Write down three things that you have done well each day. These experiences do not need to be large. In fact, as Sandberg describes, her three things often seemed minor — even trivial — like making coffee or getting the kids out of bed. But, as she continues, even these tiny steps matter. They compose what psychologists refer to as “small wins,” and they add up to boost our senses of control and confidence (p. 68).
- Write down three experiences that provoke joy each day. Sandberg explains that “when something positive happens, I think, This will make the notebook. It’s a habit that brightens the whole day” (p. 101). She then cites studies by several scholars — including a 2004 Journal of Research in Personality article by Chad M. Burton and Laura A. King — that found that “Writing about joyful experiences for just three days can improve people’s moods and decrease their visits to health centers a full three months later” (p. 102).
Using these techniques and others, Sandberg asserts that “Journaling helped me make sense of the past and rebuild my self-confidence to navigate the present and the future” (p. 67-8). I, for one, feel the same. Journaling with consistency and a sense of purpose helps me understand confusing experiences from the past, adapt to the challenges of the present, and prepare for the necessary uncertainties of the future.
For more information, please see the Option B.Org website.
Note — The image of Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant was obtained from an article about their collaboration on Inc.com.