Last week, we looked at the questions 1) Do people still read? and 2) If not, why not? We see that overall, reading is in slight decline but has hovered at a relatively steady rate for the past 30 years. It is also clear that factors both within and beyond individual control influence whether we spend our limited free time on reading.
Today, I want to look at the question – does it matter? Why do people read? Do they reap the benefits they expect? In an age inundated with information, is literature important? Indulge me as we look at 5 reasons why reading still matters in 2021:
Readers May Live Longer (!)
In their most recent check-in, one longitudinal study on the impact of reading spanning nearly 50 years found that 33% of non-readers had died compared to 27% of book readers. Their admittedly hypothetical explanation: basically, readers are more likely to be informed and to make healthy choices. Can you guarantee your next book will add years to your life? No, but there may be a 5% chance it will. Why not take those odds?!?
On a more serious note….
Readers Engage With Their Communities
According to the US National Endowment for the Arts, reading is positively related to many positive activities, including…
… civic responsibility. Readers are:
- 27% more likely to volunteer.
- 31% more likely to vote.
… the arts. Readers are:
- 31% more likely to visit a museum,
- 26% more likely to attend plays or musicals.
- 22% more likely to create art.
… sports. Readers are:
- 44% more likely to attend sporting events.
- 32% more likely to exercise.
- 19% more likely to do outdoor activities.
- 14% more likely to play sports.
You see that last category? Sports! Readers are not just more likely to engage in “bookish” activities – they’re also more likely to live active lives.
As we discussed in part 1, correlation is not causation, and many of these activities are, like reading, a privilege, but those are some strong associations. Reading may well open your mind to new interests and experiences, encouraging you to plug in to your community in a variety of meaningful ways.
Readers Continue Learning
You would probably not be shocked to hear that reading regularly significantly improves your vocabulary. Readers are exposed to and therefore absorb new words. Simple, right? I imagine you would be only slightly less surprised if I told you that reading improves your communication skills. Humans are instinctively narrative. Reading exposes our brains to narrative forms. Internalizing those forms improves our ability to convey them to others, making us more effective and persuasive communicators. What do you remember in more detail, and for longer: a technical description, or a compelling story?
However, would you believe me if I told you that reading improves your logical skills? It’s true. Reading trains our brains to make connections between causes and effects. Reflecting on narratives helps us imagine different choices and outcomes from similar contexts. These same mental muscles help us predict conclusions from inputs: a key skill in logical thinking.
Readers Increase Empathy and Morality
When it comes to physical brain chemistry, the act of imagining a story is not significantly different from remembering. Fiction invites us to inhabit the mind of the character on the page. We walk in their shoes and, importantly, feel what they feel. This creates empathy. Reflecting on this experience allows us to evaluate whether those feelings are true, just, and fair. This practice increases our ability to imagine the inner lives of others in real life, empathize with their situation, and respond morally.
Fiction has been likened by psychologists to an emotional gym, where we exercise our ability to feel what others feel and respond appropriately. Speaking of psychology…
Readers Enjoy Greater Mental Health
Reading – both non-fiction (self-help) and fiction – has been shown through many studies to offer a myriad of mental health benefits, including (deep breath…):
Advice, behavioral change, catharsis, connection, distraction, empathy, escapism, identification, information, insight, relaxation, relief, re-socialization, self-identification, self-validation, social support, understanding, and/or validation.
Now read that last paragraph five times fast.
The most basic mechanism for improved mental health through reading is information. Particularly with non-fiction, sometimes the page just conveys a timely idea to the right reader unlock healing and freedom.
Another avenue is escapism. I know, ‘escape’ has a negative connotation. It sounds like avoidance. Psychologists don’t see it that way in all contexts. Reducing stress, relaxing, and letting go of negative emotions rather than dwelling on them are legitimate mental health benefits. This is the most common benefit of reading good fiction.
The most complex mental health benefit of reading is cathartic self-realization. Something on the page resonates with us; we see ourselves in the story. Then, we recognize that others have felt what we feel. Knowing there is something universal in our experience, that we are not alone, leads to feeling solidarity. This validation, even from fictional characters, can bring self-acceptance and healing.
You know where I stand. I love a good book. I was fortunate enough to be raised with books in the home and frequent trips to the local library. Stories are in my blood. I hope this message convinces even one person to pick up a book.
This Series Comes With a Bibliography:
“An investigation of experiences of reading for mental health and well-being and their relation to models of bibliotherapy.” By Brewster, Elizabeth (2011); PhD thesis, University of Sheffield. <https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/2006/2/Brewster%2C_Elizabeth.pdf> (accessed 6/15/21)
“Get into Reading as an intervention for common mental health problems: exploring catalysts for change” by Dowrick C, Billington J, Robinson J, et al; Medical Humanities 2012; 38:15-20. (accessed 6/15/21)
“No fairytale… The benefits of the bedtime story.” by Blake, J., & Maiese, N.; The Psychologist, 21(5), 386–389. <https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2008-06599-003> (accessed 6/15/21)
“Storytelling and Narrative Knowing: An Examination of the Epistemic Benefits of Well-Told Stories” by Sarah E. Worth; The Journal of Aesthetic Education; Vol. 42, No. 3 (Fall, 2008), pp. 42-56 (15 pages); Published By: University of Illinois Press; The Journal of Aesthetic Education <https://www.jstor.org/stable/25160289> (accessed 6/15/21)
“The Benefits of Reading on Longevity,” by Lomax, Olivia; Osmosis Magazine: Vol. 2020 : Iss. 2, Article 3. <https://scholarship.richmond.edu/osmosis/vol2020/iss2/3> (accessed 6/15/21)
“The Life-Long Benefits of Reading for Pleasure” by Professor Alice Sullivan; The SL 63-1 Spring 2015; <https://cls.ucl.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/School_Librarian.pdf> (accessed 6/15/21)
“To Read or Not To Read” by National Endowment for the Arts, Nov. 2007 <https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/ToRead.pdf> (Accessed May 24, 2021)