A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading. – William Styron
Reading a fat, juicy novel while lounging by a body of water is one of summer’s true pleasures. But did you know that you are also improving your mental health while you deep dive with your favorite characters?
A Healthy Escape
Reading fiction is one of the most wholesome ways to take a break from our everyday lives and troubles. From the comfort of a lounge chair or towel you can visit other times, places and get inside the minds of fascinating and unusual people. Taking a break from our own perspectives is a great way to relax and reading has been shown to be as effective as yoga or humor for reducing stress.
Since ancient times, the potential restorative power of reading has been recognized, with the library of Pharaoh Ramses II bearing the inscription “house of healing for the soul.” Reading novels can expand our perspectives while encouraging feelings of hope, contentment and empowerment. Discussing books with others can enhance these feelings, which helps explain the popularity of both online and in-person book clubs.
The narrative structure books provide also help us to feel a sense of order and containment, which can have a calming effect on the mind. Indeed, genre fiction that usually has predictable formats—such as crime or romance—can be some of the most relaxing reading options. Alternatively, choosing novels with plots that mirror our own struggles can actually increase agitation and stress. This phenomenon may demonstrate why many popular summer reads tend to contain lighter and less serious subject matter.
Encourages Creative Thinking
When a book plunges us into different worlds and all of their associated problems and challenges, we get a first hand glimpse of how the characters face and eventually overcome their difficulties. Do we want to take on our problems directly like a gladiator or find a more subtle approach like an 18th century heroine? Do we want to join a ragtag team to take on the arch villain or try to be the lone superhero that saves the day? Becoming virtually involved in these narrative challenges may demonstrate problem solving methods we had never considered as well as giving us creative insights into handling our own personal difficulties.
Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard University Joseph Badaracco assigns several novels—such as The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro—to encourage engagement and critical thinking in his students. He believes novels allow his students to get an insider perspective on multiple competing viewpoints, pushes them outside of their comfort zones and encourages them to see the world from a different point of view. All of these benefits are available to the casual summer reader as well, especially if you choose culturally challenging novels.
Empathy is our ability to understand and empathize with another person’s feelings and point of view and is highly related to emotional intelligence. Reading fiction has been shown to develop this quality, and can be especially useful in helping readers to understand the perspectives of marginalized and underrepresented populations.
MRI’s of people reading the novel Pompeii—a dramatic and romantic retelling of the last days of Volcanic eruption that destroyed this famous ancient Roman city—showed increased activation and connectivity in their somatosensory cortices. This is the part of the brain associated with physical sensations like movement and pain, demonstrating that readers were experiencing and processing the book with their bodies as well as their minds.
Reading stories can also help combat racial biases and allow us to see the world with a more nuanced point of view. In one study, participants who read an unconventional story with a Muslim protagonist were less likely to demonstrate racial stereotyping directly after than people who had not been exposed to the narrative. Emotionally transporting fiction has the most power to increase our empathy.
If you need any more reasons to crack that book, reading may combat cognitive decline and can definitely improve your vocabulary. So stock up on books and sunblock and get ready to enjoy all the mental health benefits reading can provide.