Intern Christine Serritslev explores the mental health benefits of reading
Imagine this: It’s raining, and you can hear the wind howling outside. You’re snuggled up in your favorite comfy chair wrapped in a blanket with a freshly brewed cup of tea at your side, ready to turn the first page of the newest crime book, you’ve been wanting to read for ages. Add a few candles and it’s as close as you can get to the almost notorious concept of Danish “hygge”. Sounds pretty good, right?
Reading for pleasure, both fiction and non-fiction, is a pastime many people enjoy to wind down after a long day at work or during the weekends and holidays. But have you ever considered if leisure reading might be beneficial for your mental health?
A study by Rizzolo et al (2009) suggest that there are some health benefits related to leisure reading, namely that it can help reduce levels of stress. They found that thirty minutes of leisure reading significantly lowered the participants heart rate and blood pressure, when measured immediately after reading. Heart rate and blood pressure are thought to be key physiological expressions of the body being in a state of stress, so this result indicate that leisure reading can be used as a way of immediately reducing the body’s physiological stress signals.
However, the study did not find an effect on perceived psychological distress, but this might be because the psychological effects of reading will only occur over a longer period of time. This is indicated by a recent study by Levine et al. (2020) which has found an association between leisure reading and decreased psychological stress among students during a full academic year at university. The more books the students read for fun the more their psychological stress level decreased during the year. Of course, there might be several different factors influencing a student’s psychological stress level during a year and the authors did control for the most prominent ones in their statistical analysis of the data, such as number of classes taken, time spend studying and their general workload.
These studies indicate that there might be some empirical evidence suggesting that leisure reading can help reduce psychological and physiological stress – that’s a pretty cool thing to keep in mind the next time you might feel a bit guilty about prioritizing reading rather than doing house chores. But do people actually believe that reading can have an effect on your mental health or is it generally just regarded as a fun pass time? Watson (2015) has investigated health professional students’ beliefs about the benefits of leisure reading. The survey found that many of the students actively used leisure reading to relieve stress and that they found it to be a helpful way to improve their work-life balance. Other perceived benefits of reading among the students were that it could help them develop empathy, provide a new perspective, and promote understanding of different cultures. Of course, the above-mentioned benefits of reading reflect the participants subjective perception of how leisure reading can help them as individuals, and the study didn’t measure if there was an objective reduction in stress level or increase in empathy. Although, there are studies that have found fictional books to affect the reader’s level of empathy – but that’s a whole other topic!
For me, leisure reading is an enjoyable activity that I find relaxing and engaging and something I view as a kind of self-care activity for myself – and I am pleased to have discovered from the above-mentioned studies, that there might actually be something about leisure reading being a self-care activity. Of course, self-care activities can take many shapes and sizes, and activities such as yoga and humor (e.g., watching a funny video) were found to have the same ability to reduce physiological stress signs in the study by Rizzolo et al. (2009). This leads me to an important point: it’s all about finding something you enjoy doing, something you are motivated to do because it makes you feel good – and not just something you do, because you read in some blog that it could help reduce your feelings of stress. Evidence points to the fact that to be potentially beneficial to your mental health, reading needs to be autonomously motivated, and not just another duty on the endless list of things you ought to do – and it might just be the same with other types of self-care activities as well.
I find this an interesting field of study in psychological research, but unfortunately it has been somewhat overlooked in the past years and more research is needed to fully understand leisure reading’s potential benefits on mental health. Imagine if reading can be used to reduce stress levels. So many people enjoy leisure reading but find it hard to prioritize in a busy life (the beforementioned survey concludes, that the main barriers to reading is lack of time, fatigue, and cost of buying books). If something you enjoy doing and are motivated to do on your own could help you fight some of those ever-present feelings of stress so often associated with modern life, then hooray. I’m not saying reading is going to be the answer to all the problems in the world, that would by far be overstating the potential of leisure reading, I will merely end here by giving a gentle encouragement to prioritize that me-time, that self-care activity that makes you feel good (whether it is reading, yoga, walking the dog, humor or…..) as it might just help you wind down after a long day at work.
Bal PM, Veltkamp M (2013) How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS ONE 8(1): e55341. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055341
S. L. Levine, S. Cherrier, A. C. Holding & R. Koestner (2020): For the love of reading: Recreational reading reduces psychological distress in college students and autonomous motivation is the key, Journal of American College Health, DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2020.1728280
Rizzolo, D., Zipp, G., Simpkins, S., & Stiskal, D. (2009). Stress Management Strategies For Students: The Immediate Effects Of Yoga, Humor, And Reading On Stress. Journal of College Teaching and Learning, 6, 79–88. https://doi.org/10.19030/tlc.v6i8.1117
Watson, E. M. (2016). The importance of leisure reading to health sciences students: Results of a survey. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 33(1), 33–48. https://doi.org/10.1111/hir.12129