Reading yields mental health benefits

Amanda Gerstenfeld

Reading is something we do every day, whether we realize it or not. We read texts, emails and street signs, to name a few. But reading for fun is much more difficult because life gets in the way. We become exhausted by the work of the day, so the limited free time we have is spent on other pursuits—Netflix, relaxing with friends, sleeping. So why should reading be a priority when we know it will always be there, looming in the background as an option? Well, positive benefits are hidden inside the pages of books. All we have to do is take the time to experience them. 

A recent article published in Time magazine investigated the power of fiction in our daily lives, highlighting both behavioral and emotional effects. Understanding people’s feelings is essential for creating and maintaining relationships in today’s society. Even though reading is usually seen as a solitary activity, there are ways that it can improve one’s social life. Discussing an interesting book with other people shows them what your interests are. It is a form of self-expression. Books contain life lessons and storylines from which people can find inspiration. Reading also creates social bonds between reader and character. This is demonstrated when the reader feels genuine grief when one of their favorite characters dies or joy when an ideal fictional couple begins a relationship. These are emotional attachments, and although they are between the reader and fictional characters, they can positively affect behavior by increasing empathy and understanding. Stories may be fictional, but they can still be connected to everyday life. 

I know from personal experience that reading the right book is not just a fleeting enjoyment; it stays with you. Novels like “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë and “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah spoke to all of the feelings inside of me that I will never be able to truly explain. They influenced my outlook on life, and I found solace in relating to the female heroines. But finding the right book is not an easy search. As someone who can become bored quite easily, I need to read words on a page that capture my attention. Most people can identify with this dilemma. Nevertheless, we should not avoid books simply because it might take a bit of time to find a good fit because the rewards are worth the energy. 

The science behind the effects of reading on mental health is limited, but researchers continue to explore possible benefits. Novels may not be able to cure cancer or types of clinical depression, but they can give someone comfort and a world to escape to for a time, an idea being put into action. 

Besides discussing the influence of fiction, the Time article also introduced the emerging idea of bibliotherapy. Bibliotherapy involves the prescription of novels to help cure or ameliorate life problems. Participants fill out a questionnaire about their likes and dislikes regarding books. Then, they meet with bibliotherapists to discuss the results of the questionnaire. Following that discussion, the bibliotherapists will prescribe a list of books for the client to read, books that he or she will actually enjoy reading. This bibliotherapy process has garnered positive feedback and will hopefully grow in popularity. 

Reading is something we know is good for us, but we nonetheless do not always participate in the act. We cannot connect or find the right book. We claim to have better things to do, or we simply do not see the point. It is hard for us as college students to fit reading into our busy schedules. We mostly read for our classes, not for fun, and are often disillusioned with reading as a whole when we are forced to read novels and essays that might spark our interest but are not what we would pick for ourselves. But we cannot remain discouraged. The positive power of fiction reaps benefits that we do not even realize, and new methods like bibliotherapy are a vital part of exploring the relationship between humans and the written word. Now is the time to pick up a book and read.