Reading for Pleasure has a Positive Effect on our Wellbeing

It can be healthy to experience – by proxy – confronting and strong emotions like grief, guilt and fear.

Which books do you turn to when you need comfort? What is the book you read (and re-read) to make yourself feel better? In her podcast The Allusionist, Helen Zaltzman – a language fanatic – discusses exactly this in an episode called ‘A Novel Remedy’. Like familiar foods, music and movies, we often turn to ‘comfort’ books when we feel unwell. This may not be just when we are physically sick, but when we are struggling mentally and emotionally too.

In ‘A Novel Remedy’, Zaltzman talks to clinical psychologist Jane Gregory, who works with patients who suffer from anxiety and depression, as well as those struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Gregory has been known to prescribe novel reading to her patients as part of their therapy for a variety of reasons.

Studies have shown that reading for pleasure can create a physical calmness in the body. Our production of cortisol, which spikes during times of stress, can be useful when we need to effectively work under pressure. However, sustained high levels of cortisol are not good for us, resulting in periods of stress and anxiety that can be debilitating. Reading, particularly fiction, can help to reduce and regulate cortisol levels in our bodies which can relieve stress. Gregory quotes a study done that found that six minutes of reading was more effective in reducing cortisol than doing a relaxation exercise. Reading helps to regulate our hormone levels in the opposite direction too; it can energise us when we feel flat or disengaged. Gregory suggests that we ‘let our guard down’ when we read; we expect nothing more than entertainment when reading a book, and so are more open to releasing what causes us tension.

Additionally, reading occupies and calms the mind. We are all well aware of the power of mindfulness and being present as an antidote for anxiety and stress, but in practice, it can often be difficult to quiet our inner dialogue. Reading is a mindful activity; it is nearly impossible to listen to our own thoughts while actively immersing ourselves in a narrative. In this way, reading becomes a truly meditative exercise, with a stimulating story and characters as an added bonus.

Often, parents become concerned about their children or teenagers reading books with emotionally charged content. Interestingly, and perhaps understandably, one of the most common emotions parents do not want their children to face when reading for pleasure is sadness. Gregory, however, makes an interesting point about this. In her work with patients suffering from PTSD and OCD, she talks about the need to experience emotional resolution by traversing an emotional arc alongside a character in a book.

It can be healthy to experience – by proxy – confronting and strong emotions like grief, guilt and fear. It increases our emotional intelligence by allowing us to understand how these intense emotions run their course, and exposes us to different methods of dealing with them. All the while, we remain safely at arm’s length – we can certainly empathise strongly with a character, but they are not us. And, as Gregory rightly points out, we can close a book and stop reading any time we like! Books teach us that there is a time frame on the intensity of emotion, and it can be encouraging to read stories of resilience when we ourselves feel unable to cope with our own day to day.

The fact that reading for pleasure can have such a positive effect on our wellbeing is compelling in its simplicity. It adds an extra dimension to the importance of the service that a library and its librarians can offer in a school, and in the broader community. In our current world, dominated by social media, over connectedness and information overload, it appears that books are exactly what the doctor ordered.

Ms Kathryn White, Head of Educational Resources and Information Centre

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