6 ways reading can improve your mental wellbeing

Reading can be an extremely beneficial hobby. Not only is it a great way to spend your free time, but reading has been proven to improve mental stability and general mental wellbeing. From enhancing your brain function to reducing stress, we have compiled this list to highlight the many mental benefits of reading just a few pages a day.

During the uncertainty brought on by Covid-19, everybody’s lives have drastically changed overnight, so it is more important than ever to find moments of the day to relax and find a positive headspace. With many of us still staying at home to protect ourselves and our loved ones, our free time has increased and figuring out how to spend that time productively can be difficult. But with the diverse range of books on the market, it is easy to find the perfect book even for those who rarely read. So, whether it’s finding comfort in a captivating fiction novel or reading a fascinating non-fiction book on your favourite subject, you’ll be happy to know that mental wellbeing goes hand in hand with reading.

1. Reading to Help Reduce Stress

Many people take up reading simply because it provides the opportunity to unwind after a long day, similar to watching television or having a hot bath. Reading allows you to switch off your mind and immerse yourself in somebody else’s story for an evening.

It is this ability to switch off from the tensions of everyday life that provides a significantly large stress relief in the cognitive mind. From a study carried out by the Cognitive Neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis from the University of Sussex, it has been proven that reading anything from a novel to a newspaper for just six minutes a day can effectively reduce stress levels by 68%. A higher combative rate than other common stress releases such as listening to music (61%) or going for a walk (42%). [1]

2. Reading to Help Brain Function

Reading is a great hobby for all ages as it helps to stimulate the mind and improve the inner functioning of the brain. A recent study found that frequent cognitive activity across a person’s life span, through mentally stimulating actions such as reading, can reduce the decline of cognitive abilities later in life by an average of 32%. [2]
This study highlights the long-term positive effects of activities such as reading and how it can act to essentially keep the mind fit through mental exercise so it can function to the best of its ability. People who are exposed to more written information can also gain a widened vocabulary and become more conscious of spelling and grammar, showing that reading opens wider opportunities for education, stimulation, and brain function.

3. Reading for Therapy

Reading has been increasingly investigated for its therapeutic benefits in the mental health sector. Bibliotherapy is a term used to describe the therapeutic act of storytelling or reading a specific type of text for the purpose of healing. This method of reading is on the rise in the UK, both recommended to patients by psychologists and used in book clubs for discussion.
In an interview with Dr Paula Byrne, the co-creator of Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing – a six-part online course that discusses how literature helps us understand and cope with deep emotional strain – Bryne discussed how bibliotherapy isn’t just through reading self-help books as some would assume, “Katherine Philips writes about the loss of children, miscarriage. I had a miscarriage and I always turned to Katherine Philips because I felt she really understood me. (…) It’s almost like using literature as a buffer to talk about your mental health, it’s quite a constructive way to talk about your mental health.” [3].

4. Reading to Raise Empathy

Reading fiction can also stimulate our thoughts and feelings and project them into our everyday life. Keith Oatley, Professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, explains that, “the most important characteristic of being human is that our lives are social. Fiction can augment and help us understand our social experiences. (…) A piece of fiction is a piece of consciousness being passed from mind to mind. When you’re reading, you’re taking in a piece of consciousness that you make your own.”

In an experiment conducted to understand out how literary fiction can prompt mental improvements to a reader, participants were provided with either fiction or nonfiction reading material. Once the participants had finished reading, they were given a cognitive empathy test. This test proved that those who read fiction actually had higher empathic responses than those who read non-fiction, thus highlighting the effects different books can have on mental attitudes and emotions. [4]

5. Reading for Social Interaction

For extroverts and introverts alike, there are many mental benefits to social interaction. Author and psychologist Susan Pinker stated that face-to-face contact releases chemicals such as oxytocin which increases levels of trust and lowers levels of stress. Reading itself is known for being a lone hobby, something you do by yourself, requiring no social interaction at all. However, this doesn’t always have to be the case. Book clubs or poetry readings for example are a great way of coming together with likeminded people. It provides discussion points and allows you to be as creatively and expressively open as you’d like.

Book clubs can help those who are shy or nervous by providing easy entry-points into conversation that don’t always exist in other settings. During our current time where social interaction is limited, books can be a great reason to video call friends, family members and those feeling exceptionally lonely during this time. Creating an online book club, a video group reading or writing letters to pen-pals about the books you’ve both read are just a handful of ways to improve your mood through social interactions and books.

6. Reading for Intelligence

Reading to improve intelligence isn’t a ground-breaking concept. The notion of the intelligent bookworm can be found through generations of tropes in both literature and film. From cliché high school nerds to old wise men, we seem to value reading as an intellectual hobby. However, we now have psychological evidence to back up the claim that books go hand in hand with intelligence. The main three categories of intelligence, widely recognised by psychologists, are Crystallised intelligence, Fluid intelligence and Emotional intelligence, and all three of these categories connect with reading on different levels.
Crystallised intelligence is the useful knowledge that stays within the brain, such as learning to drive or knowing the names of capital cities. The easiest way for many people to expand this knowledge within the brain is through reading, thus increasing Crystallised intelligence.

Fluid intelligence, broadly speaking, is the ability to detect, understand, and solve problems. Many believe that reading fiction provides excellent stimulation of fluid intelligence. Some also believe that the increased emphasis on critical reading and writing skills in schools today may play a part in explaining the Flynn effect (a long-sustained increases in school test scores, measured in many parts of the world, over the 20th century).

Emotional intelligence is the ability to accurately understand and effectively respond to emotions of both yourself and others around you. As highlighted in point 4, reading can raise the levels of empathy within a reader which shows a precise growth in Emotional intelligence for those who read often.

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[1] Galaxy Stress Research. Mindlab International, Sussex University, 2009.
[2] https://n.neurology.org/content/81/4/314
[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/disability-44195095
[4] “Trends in Cognitive Sciences.” Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds, vol. 20, no.8, 2016, pp. 618-628.