Six wellbeing benefits of reading

From fast-paced thrillers and murder mysteries to fascinating memoirs and dragon-filled fantasy novels, books can bring us immense pleasure.

There’s something particularly powerful about the way words can transport you to faraway places in your imagination and block out the real world, if only for a while.

Not only is reading fun, it can have a positive impact on our wellbeing too – for both adults and children.

Here, experts explain six ways reading is a wellbeing booster.

1. Stress relief

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“When we read, we focus on the narrative and can get lost in the depth and texture of the story, thereby halting intrusive and repetitive thoughts that may trigger the stress response,” says psychologist Dr Meg Arroll. “In this manner, reading can also help with low mood and depressive symptoms, raised blood pressure, heart rate and feeling overwhelmed”.

Read: Five types of relaxation and the power of rejuvenation

There’s a reason reading to children before bedtime is so popular, says Professor Margareta James. “Sharing and enjoying a book together is a lovely way to relax. It promotes bonding and allows [children] to escape from the world in a fun way, and immerse themselves in a great story.”

Children, teens and adults who regularly read for pleasure have a built-in skill and habit that stands them in good stead when they are feeling sad, angry, worried, jealous or disappointed.

2. Emotional awareness

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Whether it’s a tragic true story or an engrossing novel, reading gives us a unique insight into the lives of others and, by exploring characters, their struggles, relationships and feelings.

“In psychology we call this the ‘theory of mind’, where we can put ourselves into others’ shoes, see alternative points of view, attribute beliefs, feelings and desires, all of which helps us to have good quality social relationships,” says Dr Arroll.

3. Reading strengthens your brain

A growing body of research indicates that reading literally changes your mind.
Researchers have used MRI scans to confirm that reading involves a complex network of circuits and signals in the brain. As your reading ability matures, those networks also get stronger and more sophisticated.

In one study, the MRI scans showed more and more areas of the brain lit up with activity as tension in the story the participants were reading increased.
Throughout the reading period and for the days following, brain connectivity increased, especially in the somatosensory cortex, the part of the brain that responds to physical sensations such as movement and pain.

4. Increases empathy

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It’s thought that by reading about the lives of people who are very different from yourself, your empathy for others naturally increases. A good book on a subject that you know very little about could open your eyes to the suffering of others that you have never experienced first hand. With a first-person account and a well-told story it’s much easier for you to relate on a personal level to people you may never get the chance to meet in real life, thereby increasing your empathy levels overall.

Stories are particularly important for helping kids to feel sympathy for other people. Young children can find it difficult to connect emotions with words. So, when they read about different characters’ emotions in stories, it helps them learn about and express their emotions better, whilst also developing their self-awareness and empathy.

Read: Is this the future of reading?

5. Bibliotherapy

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Self-help books and novels alike can have a life-changing effect, imparting knowledge about physical and mental health conditions or changing your perspective at a crucial time.

A lot of personal development books come with exercises and prompts that get you thinking about the choices you make and why you make them. An honest evaluation of your life can help you decide to make different choices or understand more about yourself.

“Bibliotherapy is an approach in which information, support and guidance is provided within a book for the reader to explore and process in their own time,” explains Dr Arroll.

6. Cognitive skills

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The National Institute on Aging recommends reading books and magazines as a way of keeping your mind engaged as you grow older.

Although research hasn’t proven conclusively that reading books prevents diseases such as Alzheimer’s, studies show that seniors who read and solve math problems every day maintain and improve their cognitive functioning. And the earlier you start, the better.

Read: Reading, writing letters and card games can delay dementia

One study found that people who’ve engaged in mentally stimulating activities all their lives were less likely to develop the plaques, lesions, and tau-protein tangles found in the brains of people with dementia.

– With PA

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Written by Katie Wright

Fashion and beauty editor at the Press Association.

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