Reading for Happiness

For most people who love books it would be fair to say that reading a good book equals happiness – you know, the kind of happiness where you are entirely hooked from beginning to end, where at the end of the day returning home to read your book makes you feel as excited as having Channing Tatum greet you at your door wearing a very tight T-shirt. Well, maybe almost as excited.

But in all seriousness, the effects that reading has on the human psyche have long been debated and analysed. It is easy to put the thrill of reading down to the fact that it offers a temporary escape from our – at times – not so ideal lives, that it engages us in human drama on a safe and temporary level, as all we need to do is to put the book down when we want out.

What is less tangible about the effects of reading is that it can actually change us: when we read we learn. We learn by living vicariously through someone else’s experience and someone else’s eyes, but ultimately also by the way in which we respond to a text on an emotional level – sometimes too intangible and subtle to clearly define or articulate.

Research into readers’ responses to books has shown that the act of reading may evoke neuroplasticity in our brains, meaning that reading can form new neural pathways and also engage areas of the brain that have not been fully activated or well-functioning. If that is the case, then the learning that occurs while reading introduces us to new ways of thinking, and new ways of responding – and while your average reader probably does not deliberately go out of their way to use reading for that purpose, the value of reading for people who suffer from depression, anxiety and trauma related mental health issues has long been recognised in various schools of psychology, and now also by the people who live and breathe books: librarians.

In the UK the idea of “reading therapy”, or “bibliotherapy” has been adapted by many libraries and librarians who now offer a service of prescribing books for particular ailments, as well as particular demographic factions of society – e.g. books to help children and young adults, or books to help older people. The notion of reading as a therapeutic agent has also been promoted by “The School of Life“, an initiative set up by writers and contemporary thinkers, including Alain de Botton, which provides a place to learn about the things that we do not learn at schools or universities, which is how to gain emotional intelligence through the use of culture. Here a “prescriptive reading service” will help you to find the books that are of relevance to whatever your current situation may be.

And if you’re sitting there shaking your head, thinking “it can’t be as simple as that”, then you may be right – for most people reading is probably just one part of the much larger picture of soul-searching activities. But for many people, the right book at the right time might just provide that catalyst for an avalanche of change – think for instance of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray Love”, and the many readers who reported feeling inspired by the book to make that long-overdue change in pursuit of their happiness.

The intricate mechanics of how books can make us happy will remain open for debate – what is agreed upon is that books inspire us to think in new ways and to think about new things – to see new possibilities and to feel encouraged that we are not alone. The power of books is like an indefinable, sometimes well-kept secret between writers and readers – the reason for the effects are probably less important than the fact that while we read we are able to co-create (alongside the author) a world in which we inscribe our own meaning and our own selves in complete freedom. Surely, that is something to be happy about.

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Tanya is a freelance writer, reviewer and blogger with a background in comparative literature. When she is not reading fabulous new books or writing about them, you can find her horse riding or walking her dogs in the beautiful Waitakere ranges. Visit Tanya at livingwritingreading.com.

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