Can Reading Make You Happier?

Ceridwen Dovey
In her article, Ms Dovey says she was “given a gift of a remote session with a bibliotherapist at the London headquarters of the School of Life, which offers innovative courses to help people deal with the daily emotional challenges of existence.”  She was sent a questionnaire that asked about her reading habits and her personal concerns by the bibliotherapist, Ella Berthold.  There followed an exchange of emails with suggested readings.  For those who are interested, there are a number of particular novels recommended in the article for specific reasons.
Ms Dovey says: “In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few
remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between
the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but
at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of
readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading
consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union”
with another mind.
“Berthoud and her colleague, Elderkin, trace the method of bibliotherapy all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, “who inscribed above the entrance to a library in Thebes that this was a ‘healing place for the soul.’ ” The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during
psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning
home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading. ‘Librarians in the
States were given training on how to give books to WWI vets, and there’s a nice
story about Jane Austen’s novels being used for bibliotherapeutic purposes at the
same time in the U.K.,’ Elderkin says. Later in the century, bibliotherapy was used
in varying ways in hospitals and libraries, and has more recently been taken up by
psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of therapy.
“For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire
lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health
and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming
clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain. Since the discovery,
in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons”—neurons that fire in our brains both when
we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone
else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. A 2011 study published in
the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of fMRI brain scans of
participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display
stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that
experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading
stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.
“Other studies published in 2006 and 2009 showed something similar—that people
who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others (even after the
researchers had accounted for the potential bias that people with greater empathetic
tendencies may prefer to read novels). And, in 2013, an influential study published
in Science found that reading literary fiction (rather than popular fiction or literary
nonfiction) improved participants’ results on tests that measured social perception
and empathy, which are crucial to “theory of mind”: the ability to guess with
accuracy what another human being might be thinking or feeling, a skill humans
only start to develop around the age of four.
“Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.  ‘Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines,’ the author Jeanette Winterson has written. ‘What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.’
“Elderkin says the number of books in the world is one of the most common woes of modern readers, and that it remains a major motivation for her and Berthoud’s work as bibliotherapists. ‘We feel that though more books are being published than ever before, people are in fact selecting from a smaller and smaller pool. Look at the reading lists of most book clubs, and you’ll see all the same books, the ones that have been shouted about in the press. If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year—and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die—you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time.” And the best way to do that? See a bibliotherapist, as soon as you can, and take them up on their invitation, to borrow some lines from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: ‘Come, and take choice of all my library/And so beguile thy sorrow…'”
Thank you, Sue.

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