A Library of Wellbeing

As a child, I loved to read. Books, comics, the ingredients list of food packets, whatever I could get my hands on containing words in the English language. It was not uncommon for my family to be going out and I would hold them up just to finish one more page of whatever book I was reading. If I could not put the book down even then, it would find the way into the car for the journey. My favourite books were fantasy and sci fi, but I could also be found reading through history books and encyclopaedias as well.

As I progressed in my education, particularly as I moved towards university, I found myself reading less and less for pleasure as I needed to read more for my studies. With textbooks and lecture notes to pour through, and increasingly journal articles, research and policy papers, the idea of picking up a book in my downtime felt less and less appealing. After a long day at work, turning on the TV then collapsing into bed was much easier than settling down to a good book.

Fortunately, I am past the stage in my career when I have exams to revise for or projects to be completing outside of my work hours. I still need to keep up to date with the latest research relevant to my field, but the intensity feels a little lower and can be done somewhat at my own pace. As this shift has occurred, I find myself reading more for pleasure again. Lockdown in 2020 and early 2021 further helped this, and I have made my way through more books in the last year (with a little help from audiobooksj) than I managed to finish in the preceding five.

As I have been reflecting on my own reading habits, and in the spirit of sharing my thoughts on health and wellbeing, I have been wondering what benefits reading (particularly for pleasure) brings to those who engage in the pastime? More over, assuming reading is a benefit to people (you can probably guess I do) then how can we fit more time with a book into our day?

It probably goes without saying the more you read the better your literacy skills and confidence reading, and there is plenty of evidence to support what is fairly intuitive. What I am wondering here, does reading bring benefits beyond simply a better grasp of language? Can it boost our health and wellbeing as well?

What does the evidence show?

As you might imagine, much of the research into reading for pleasure and health and wellbeing has focussed on children and young people. Getting young people to read more is one of those policy ideas few people can disagree with, and consequently it gets the funding for research. At the forefront of research into reading for pleasure is the National Literacy Trust.

Looking directly at whether reading improved mental wellbeing in children, the NLT found those children who read the most had higher levels of wellbeing, and those with better literacy skills are more likely to feel the benefits. Interestingly, the benefits appear to be greater for boys rather than girls, something which needs more exploration.

Access to books, probably unsurprisingly, was shown to be associated with better wellbeing, after all it is hard to read if you do not have access to books at home. Fortunately, ownership of books is not essential to boost wellbeing, with use of school libraries also linked to improved wellbeing for children. Reading books is reading books, no matter where they come from.

It is not just wellbeing which is boosted by reading. Reading frequently at the start of secondary school leads to better health behaviours in mid teens (eating better and lower smoking rates). Coupled with better attention and less hyperactivity in teenage years, reading is fairly conclusively a positive for children’s health.

But what about adults, you might well be asking. The research is sparser, but there are tentative signs of the benefits for adults as well. The Reading Between the Lines report is one of the most comprehensive looks at reading on adult health and wellbeing, and it is certainly a positive start. When it comes to managing anxiety, reading is rated highest for relaxation activities, while reading is also associated with a higher life satisfaction in general, even if you are just reading for 30 minutes a day.

When it comes to relating with other people, reading makes you more aware of other cultures, able to interact with strangers easier and helps you to understand other people’s feelings. And it is not just reading for ourselves which can help improve our wellbeing, reading to the kids not only helps the relationship between parents and children, but it helps parents manage stress better as well.

And, before we move on from this brief review of the evidence for reading, it can be good for our health in old age as well, with data suggesting reading is linked to better cognitive skills in older people suffering depression, may well be protective against dementia, and might even be associated with a longer life, if even for just a few months.

Reading more

As well as looking at the benefits of reading for adults, the Reading Between the Lines report also looked at barriers to reading, factors including time (for 42% of people) or low mood being factors stopping people reading. Having a baby stopped 13% of mums from reading, while similar to my story, 9% of people stopped reading when they left school.

Finding time

Clearly, finding time to read is going to be an important step to people reading more. I will hopefully blog about time management at a later date, for now I am going to look at some ideas to fit reading into your life.

Setting time aside can be a good start. If you are like me, you might tell yourself you will sit down to read a book before inevitably something more important comes along. It’s no secret life can be busy and chaotic. There is always the chance of another task taking up our time, so dedicated time to read could be the answer to our dilemma.

The obvious time to set aside to read is just before bed. Not only is reading a great way to relax and unwind before going to sleep, but the time before bed is often the only time people consistently have available to them. But it does not have to be bedtime. You might choose to set aside an hour or two on the weekend, or maybe replace another activity in the week with time diving into a good book. Say for example you watch TV most evenings after work. Could you choose one night to turn off the box and pick up a book. It could even be for an hour when your least favourite programme is on (my vote would be for the news…).

If you do choose to dedicate some time to reading, try not to be too hard on yourself if something comes up to distract you. With the best will in the world, plans can change, and making sure we are flexible is going to be an important step. After all, if reading is about boosting our wellbeing, it does not make sense to find ourselves more frustrated if we miss the odd reading session.

As well as having dedicated reading time, you can also try the ad hoc approach I would use as a child. For this, you need a book with you at all times, and access to an eReader can help here. With this approach, you can delve into a good book whenever you find yourself with five minutes, be it on a bus or train, or waiting for a meeting or appointment (back in the day when we actually went to meetings of course). At these times it can be tempting to get out the phone and start scrolling, but why not try a book to pass the time instead?

A few years ago I found myself with an hour to spare in a room with next to no internet access (the time for the meeting had changed last minute and if I had left, by the time I reached the office I would need to turn around again). I had no book to read with me at that point, though I did have a free eBook I had downloaded a few weeks earlier. I ended up reading a few chapters of a book which would never usually appeal to me and found it enjoyable, so regardless of any effects on wellbeing, you might just find yourself a new author or genre to explore as well.

Family time

If having a family can get in the way of mum finding the time to read as much as they would like, and we also know reading with the kids not only boosts our family bonds but also helps manage parental stress, then the obvious thing to me is to make reading part of family time. Now I am well aware of the pressure on time for busy families, and fitting in time to read with the kids will be a challenge for some. My argument given the evidence, it is probably worth the effort!

So how do you read together more without impacting too much on the rest of life? Multi-tasking is one option. You might read a story with the kids when they are going to bed, but how about at other times in the day when they are a captive audience such as bath time as well (taking care to keep the book dry of course)? Or if you are having a day out, could it include a trip to the library to choose your next book or two? And if after that you are going to the park for a picnic, try including book time as well.

You will know far better than I what activities you need to fit in the week and where you could squeeze a half hour to read with the kids. If it seems you cannot think of any time you have free, try creating a diary of your typical week, mark on the essentials and the things you would like to do, and you might be surprised just how much free time you can fit in to add in reading to boot.

Reading together

I have written already about reading as a family, but even for those of you without young children, it does not mean you inevitably have to read alone. There are plenty of book clubs available to join and discuss the books you have read or want to read. Since the pandemic many have moved online, and it can be a great way to discover new books and meet new people, giving us a double boost to our wellbeing as we get to socialise at the same time as spending more time reading. And even if you are not looking to meet new people, consider starting a little club with the friends you have already. Challenge each other to read more, explore new books and see how your wellbeing changes as a result. As with many changes in life, making the change with others can be that little bit of motivation to make it stick,

Variety is the spice of life

Finally, if you are planning on reading more, it might be time to expand your typical reading choices. People tend to be creatures of habit, I am no exception. Given a choice, as I have said above I will pick a fantasy or sci-fi book, but over the last year or so I have tried to broaden by horizons. From historical fiction to the classics, I have found an amazing selection of books I would never have chosen a year or two back.

The library is going to be the best place to try your first foray into a new genre. Borrow the book rather than buy it, especially if you are not sure if you’ll enjoy it, and support our libraries at the same time. And of course take recommendations. Friends and family are a good place to start, but you could also try goodreads for popular book choices as well. If you don’t want to give up your favourite genres entirely, try alternating one favourite, one wild card, and see how many different worlds you can dive into.

Conclusions

I don’t think anyone will be surprised to see reading is a good thing for us. Intuitively it is good for our reading skills, but increasingly it is becoming clear it is good for our general health and wellbeing as well. As we try to focus on looking after ourselves, picking up a book may be a good place to start.

If you are planning on delving into a new book this weekend, whether you’re a regular reader or a returning bookworm, let us know about it in the comments. Tell us what you are reading, how you fit time to read into busy lives, and most of all how it makes you feel! Enjoy!

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