I love reading. I always have. As a child mum would take me to the library every Saturday afternoon. We would spend ages in there as I deliberated over which books to borrow, the horror of being restricted to only eight filling me with grief. We would leave with my pile, and I would start reading in the car, spending the rest of the weekend lost in a world of words, only to have finished them my Monday. Whenever my brother and I went with our parents to family friends’ houses we would take books. We’d wave hello, then rush into a corner to read. We were probably the only children to be told by their parents they read too much. At school I was sent to the top class to pick out books, having already exhausted the shelves in my year’s room. Our house is filled with books, a little messily, on every surface, by every chair, and lining all the shelves. I carry around at least 3 or 4 every time I leave the house. My back knows it.
Around half of the population read regularly, although time and frequency is skewed towards the older population. 2.2 million people in the UK, who used to read, cite difficult events such as depression, the death of loved one, losing their job or ill health as a reason behind this.
Bibliotherapy (the use of literature to help people deal with psychological, social and emotional problems ) has been recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) UK as a useful start in treating mild and moderate depression, anxiety and panic and some other mental health problems. But it doesn’t have to be a prescription – reading for pleasure is just as beneficial.
According to a study from The Reader, people who pick up a book are happier with their lives, with those reading for just 30 minutes a week being 20% more likely to report greater life satisfaction. This life satisfaction comes in many forms, including health, mental wellbeing, connection and knowledge. It’s not only enjoyment that reading promotes, but the ability to cope with the challenges of life.
To start with, reading s relaxing. It’s why we often fall asleep with a book in our hands, or miss the stop because we can’t look up from the page. But in a mentally engaging way, rather than purely passive like mindlessly scanning social media or watching television. The absorbing effect of reading is reminiscent of the state of ‘flow’ that Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has found is one of the greatest impacts upon happiness.
There’s a connection that comes from reading, finding yourself in a relationship and exploration with the characters in whose world you are inhabiting. Non-readers are 28% more likely to report feelings of depression, and 19% claim it helps make them feel less lonely. It might help introduce them to new ideas, remind them of things they love, trigger memories and encourage consideration and thought. A sense of recognition can help people suffering from particular stresses to know they are not alone, and open up new ways to deal with those struggles.
Reading reveals more about the world, and thus enhances curiousity, empathy and inclusion, and regular readers tend to have greater general knowledge and perform better at work. They also tend to have wider social circles and find it easier to engage with other members of their community, with the study showing readers are 27% more likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger and 50% more likely to enjoy it.
All of these make people feel better about themselves. Readers are 10% more likely to report good self-esteem than non readers and those who read for just 30 minutes a week are 18% more likely to report higher self-esteem.