The Health Benefits of Books You Have to *Read* to Believe
During this particularly stressful year, one growing source of relief for many people has been the practice of reading books. In fact, book sales have been booming, with 322 million books sold in just the first half of 2020, according to Publishers Weekly. The same publishers have seen a rising interest in social justice-related books as well as at-home education books with more children studying from home.
The most dramatic demand, however, has been for adult fiction, with a 23 percent increase between May and June alone. People want to escape the current reality, and what better way than diving into a romance novel, thriller, or contemporary literary fiction? Entertainment is just the tip of the iceberg for how books can enrich your life. The benefits of reading books are a-plenty.
Research shows that just 30 minutes of reading a day can allow you to physically reset, lowering your blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress. But reading can also support your mental health by allowing you to make sense of a difficult past or struggles in your life, and in turn, experience feelings of hope. Bibliotherapy, or the practice of using books and other forms of literature to support a patient's mental health, has been used by therapists since the early 20th century, but the roots of this ideology go all the way back to the Greeks and the Egyptians, who viewed libraries as sacred and healing spaces, according to Psychology Today.
So, what are the benefits of reading books specifically?
Books provide an abundance of alternate realities and escapes, but they also allow you to refocus, recharge, and reframe your perspective. Studies have shown that walking in a narrator's shoes helps you become more empathetic and understanding of experiences that may differ from your own.
That's because fiction, unlike nonfiction, often creates a world that you can relate to, according to a University of Toronto study. As you read about characters whose goals and narratives narrowly mimic those in your life, you become better adept at understanding characters (err, people) IRL. So, if you consider yourself a fiction bookworm, you may actually have higher social-processing skills than your peers. As an added bonus, the development of empathy through reading has been linked to pro-social behavior, such as helping, sharing, donating, and volunteering.
Those who suffer from depression often experience feelings of hopelessness and isolation, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Reading fiction, however, can help address and alleviate these symptoms. How? By showing the reader how characters approach similar situations and find their way toward a positive outcome, according to Terri Bacow, Ph.D., a New York City-based licensed clinical psychologist.
"When you realize you're not alone, and other people or characters are going through similar things, it gives you a new perspective," says Bacow. And while shifting your POV is by no means a cure for mental illness, it can help reduce this sense of isolation and estrangement. That's not to say every book you pick up will act as a roadmap, but out of the millions of books published every year, the odds are high that you'll find a title (or two...or three...) that can help guide you towards feeling better. And need not forget about the many self-help and nonfiction books that are focused entirely on depression and other mental health conditions. These two genres can help you develop coping strategies by learning what worked IRL for someone else in a similar situation, adds Bacow.
Reduce Stress and Anxiety
You've just turned off the lights, hoping to drift off to sleep smoothly when all of a sudden — bam! — your mind turns into a storm of anxious thoughts steering you towards yet another sleepless night. (Where is my birth certificate? Will I die alone? How do I save the planet?) Now, imagine instead of spiraling, you had a book to turn to as a way to escape your inner dialogue. Reading — particularly fiction — can allow you to take a breather of sorts from a stressful moment by providing an immersive distraction and sweeping you up into another world. And while this escape is ephemeral, it can have a seriously positive impact. Losing yourself in pages can relax your body by lowering heart rate and easing tension in your muscles and your mind. In fact, a 2009 study found that reading can reduce stress by up to 68 percent — more than other relaxing practices such as humor or yoga. (Related: How to Stop Stress Overthinking)
"With the pandemic, everyone is insanely stressed out, and if you can help that with something affordable and accessible, like books, then great," says Bacow. She cautions that books shouldn't replace therapy for serious mental health disorders, but can act as additional support if you're going through a tough moment.
Help with Processing Trauma and Grief
Grief and trauma are two claws on the same beast: pain. "For people who are grieving, each day's so painful, and when you lose someone, reading can make that day easier to survive," says Bacow. "Autobiographies and self-help books are really important here, because you can read about how someone else has pulled through that type of experience. What grieving people look for is hope, and these types of books can be inspiring."
A word of caution: If you're someone who prefers to work through a stressful situation, nonfiction books about grief and trauma might be your best bet. However, if your experience is too painful to re-live through someone else's narrative, fiction, again, can provide a sense of escapism, which might be more beneficial to your mental health and wellbeing. (Related: Understanding Grief In the Time of Coronavirus)
Increase Life Expectancy
A study of 3,600 participants showed that book readers lived about two years longer than non-book readers. This difference in longevity was significantly greater than that observed when reading magazines or newspapers. While there's no hard and fast formula for how much to read to live longer, as a general finding, reading lengthens your life, so pick up a book and get cracking!
Improve Quality of Sleep
Sleep deprivation can have a significant impact on your mind and body, which can affect your mood and ability to focus on daily tasks, according to The Mayo Clinic. Doctors recommend easing into sleep with a nighttime routine, while minimizing light and sound. Reading is a screen-free and quiet way to settle your mind before you drift off to sleep. "I would recommend reading unequivocally over looking at your phone before bed," says Bacow. "Reading can slow down your brain waves and put you into a state of relaxation that sets the stage for good sleep."
A recent survey from Sleep Junkie, a mattress and sleep product review site, found that out of 1,000 individuals, those who read frequently before bed (five or more nights per week), reported falling asleep more quickly and with a better overall sleep quality than those whose bedtime routines lacked a book. Reading makes you sleepy because it allows you to unwind. Books don't have the same harsh effect that laptops and other screens have, which causes less strain on our eyes; a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that it takes people who read on iPads before bed 10 minutes longer to doze off than those who prefer physical books. Furthermore, if reading before bed becomes part of your routine, your body will learn the pattern and transition into sleep mode when you start to read. That, paired with a comfortable spot like a couch or bed, will have you dozing before you know it.
Boost Cognitive Ability
Many studies have indicated that reading can improve cognitive ability and slow cognitive decline amongst the elderly. In fact, the National Institute on Aging recommends reading as a way to keep your mind engaged and active — which, in turn, can help with maintaining overall brain health. While there isn't enough evidence to suggest that reading can prevent diseases such as Alzheimer's or dementia, the NIA says that intellectually engaging activities such as reading can, in fact, improve short term memory.
"Everything that exercises the brain is good," says Bacow. There's no concrete evidence that one type of book is better for cognitive stimulation than another; it's more about the act of reading. And if you're reading this article as a young adult, know that research shows stimulating your brain at an early age is better than starting later in life.
Enhance Communication Skills
It's no secret that reading can build your vocabulary (#TBT to elementary school), but did you know it can also enhance your communication skills? Reading can help you command distinct memories of words, which makes them more easily recalled for use in everyday speech (vs. memorizing off a vocab list), according to the International Journal of English Linguistics (IJEL). For example, if you come across a character who's "flummoxed" and don't know what it means, you'll likely take the time to look up the definition. Then the next time you want to say you are feeling confused and shocked, you might readily recall the word that you took time to figure out.
Additionally, once you understand sentences and structures of written text, and are able to master reading comprehension, foreign languages become easier to learn as well, thus expanding your overall level of communication to people, including those who speak different languages, according to the IJEL. "Research studies show that improving empathy improves communication," adds Bacow. "Therefore, reading is good fodder for conversation, it can help people open up."
So, Where to Begin?
Now you're ready to read, but what book should you start with? There are countless books to choose from, but here a few good sources for recommendations: The New York Times Best Sellers, Reese Witherspoon's Book Club, Oprah Winfrey's Book Club, and Emma Robert's Book Club: Belletrist. (If you're an outdoor adventure buff, consider this list of Badass Adventure Books Written By Women.)
Additionally, the Center for Fiction in New York has a Novel Approach Service that provides you with a year's worth of book recommendations picked specifically for you. As the CFC's Head Librarian Allison Escoto put it, "Books are a window into the human condition and there's a reader for every book."