Reading makes life better . . .

Published 20th June 2022

“She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.” - Annie Dillard

Of all the reasons there are to read, writer Annie Dillard perhaps puts it best when she says; ‘to fill up and live’. As avid readers, we can all relate to this sentiment. For many of us, reading is much more than a hobby, it’s a part of who we are, and we simply can’t imagine a life without it.

Books are like the best type of friend. Our companion when we are lonely, our solace when we are down. A source of happiness, contentment and hope. But more than that, they can surprise, challenge us and even shock. They can widen our view of the world, change our perspective and help us to not only understand, but to empathise with characters whose experiences are far removed from our own. Simply put, books can help make us better people.

And that’s not just booklover hyperbole – the research backs it up. In a 2005 study, psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York found that reading fiction enhanced what’s known as ‘theory of mind’ – the skill of understanding other people’s mental states and navigating complex social relationships. Plus, in 2011 a study published in the Annual Review of Psychology based on MRI brain scans, showed that when people read about an experience, they actually display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they live that experience first-hand. So, reading really does put us in another person’s shoes, no matter how different they are to ourselves, or how far away they might live.

A woman reading a Sally Rooney book while perched on a windowsill

Books as medicine

The ability of books to affect our neurological pathways is nothing short of amazing. And it’s true on so many levels. Take our tendency to curl up with a good book in times of stress – it’s not just about escapism or hiding from the world. There are some very real biological processes going on there. 

In a University of Sussex study, people who had read for merely six minutes had slower heart rates, less muscle tension, and their stress levels were reduced by a staggering 68 per cent. Reading fiction in particular has been found to engage both the mind and the imagination, meaning it places our brains into a state similar to meditation, and can bring similar health benefits. As Dr. David Lewis, the neuroscientist behind the study said, “[reading] is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.”

And there’s more. Research at the University of Liverpool found that readers are 21 per cent less likely to report feelings of depression and 10 per cent more likely to report good self-esteem than non-readers.

The brilliant writer Janette Winterson sums it up when she says: “Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.”

On reflection then, it seems I’ve been self-medicating with books for most of my life. And while in the past I’ve sometimes felt ‘readers’ guilt’ – the feeling that I should be doing something else, for someone else, rather than wasting time on such a self-indulgent, solitary and supremely pleasurable activity – it turns out I haven’t been wasting time at all. I’ve been busy making myself better. And I’m not about to stop now.

Transforming society

 The ability reading has to improve our lives, has now gone far beyond the rhetoric. It’s being used to help tackle some very real issues, including loneliness and dementia. The 2018 report A Society of Readers, from think tank Demos and The Reading Agency, highlighted evidence to show that reading can actually help to combat loneliness and protect future generations from what has been dubbed the ‘loneliness epidemic’.

Polly Mackenzie, Chief Executive of Demos, commented: "Reading may not seem like a radical solution to solving some of the biggest issues of this generation, however this report proves that reading can train our brains and hold off dementia, help us foster connections with other people and alleviate loneliness and depression. It's no exaggeration to say that reading can transform British society."

And this month’s national Loneliness Aware ness Week (13 – 17 June), run by The Marmalade Trust, highlighted the many and varied instances when we feel lonely – from childhood into adulthood, so it’s timely to remind ourselves that reading really can help.

A woman picking out a book from the library shelves while smiling

Better with books

It's a powerful truth that people who read books regularly are on average happier, more satisfied with life, and more likely to feel the things they do in life are worthwhile (Book Trust 2013). Books help us navigate the world, encourage empathy and connection, reduce stress and even help us make sense of an uncertain future.

Writer Eileen Gunn says that what the science fiction genre in particular does; " especially in those works that deal with the future, is help people understand that things change and that you can live through it."

And in ever changing and uncertain times, it’s never been more important.

So, what can we take away from all this? At the very least, a new-found confidence that our often incurable reading habits are a positive thing that should only be nurtured. That we can let go of the readers’ guilt and embrace our passion safe in the knowledge that it’s doing ourselves, and those around us, a great deal of good.

Because the truth is, life is quite simply, better with books.

In need of a literary lift? Take a look at our carefully curated collection of feel good fiction for inspiration.

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