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Notes from Youville: A Tribute to the Handwritten Note

In many ways, the importance of handwritten notes has not diminished, even as they become less common. While a growing number of seniors are taking to computers and email, a simple handwritten note is still one of the most endearing ways to communicate personal information. Which letter would you be more excited to open, the one with a handwritten address, or the one with a digitally printed label?


The propensity to compose and write notes out by hand can be broken down along generations, according to one general rule: older generations do it more.  Most seniors grew up and lived in times when letter-writing was as prevalent as email and social networking today. Writing letters was necessary for maintaining social connections, expressing affection, and making a good impression.  Schools devoted considerable time to teaching penmanship and placed a special emphasis  on cursive writing versus printing. Ask any one over the age of 65 and they will likely have a story about learning cursive in grade school.


Today, written notes are becoming less common as technology assumes a greater role in business and social life.  Elementary schools have begun to debate whether they ought to teach penmanship at all.  Schools in 41 states adopted the Common Core curriculum last year, which emphasizes computer skills but no longer mandates cursive instruction.  Critics of this trend worry that in a few decades, no one will know how to write in cursive, and the charm of handwritten letters will eventually be a relic of the past. 


To preserve the tradition of handwritten expression, we observe National Handwriting Day on January 23rd. National Handwriting Day was established in 1977 by the Writing Instrument Manufacturer’s Association. The goal has been to get everyone writing, regardless of what that piece of writing is: a letter, a poem, a recipe, anything.  Even if you don’t routinely write your thoughts down on paper, here are some good reasons to take up a pen and start:  


Mental Health

Journaling and other forms of expressive writing may relieve depression and anxiety.  One study found that people who wrote in a journal about traumatic experiences got better sleep and reported less anxiety.  Another study found that people who took time to write “gratitude journals” experienced more fulfillment in day to day life.  How do you keep a gratitude journal?  Just take 10-15 minutes every night before bed and write down the things you’re thankful for.    In a week or two you may be surprised to find yourself feeling more positive and optimistic about life.   


Writing by hand may also aid learning  and memory in a way that typing does not. The physical act of forming letters sends feedback loops to the brain, establishing motor memory that helps us recall the information we’ve written later on (this is similar to the way musicians remember music, based on the remembered movements of their fingers across strings or over valves).


Physical Health 

A study conducted in Auckland, New Zealand suggests that seniors can improve their immune response through writing. A group of seniors aged 67-94 were asked to write about the most emotionally traumatic thing that ever happened to them, describing in detail the impact the events had on them.  A control group was also asked to write, but only about non-emotional topics. After a few days, the seniors underwent skin biopsies (for an unrelated study), and their wounds from the biopsies were monitored.  The researchers found that the group who had written about personal emotional events healed faster.



According to an article in The Huffington Post, handwriting engages different areas of our brain than typing. Because writing is slower, it forces us to think more carefully as we formulate our thoughts on paper.  Handwriting engages visual, cognitive and motor brain processes, engaging our minds more fully in the writing process. 


Many find that the process of writing by hand feels more personal. Writing thoughts out by hand is, as poet Charles Simic notes, a more “self-conscious act” than typing. The process of transferring an idea onto paper through the fluid, physical movement of writing gives us a feeling of ownership over our words. No complex machine helped us produce them, just our own mind-body coordination. According to Simic, “If one has the urge to write down a complete thought, a handsome notebook gives it more class.”


If you regret never having learned how to use email or Facebook, remember that “old-fashioned” handwriting may be a more valuable skill–– especially as handwritten messages become more rare. Handwritten letters lead to stronger feelings of connection and are more likely to make a lasting impression.


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