For many people, the very idea of a quiet afternoon to themselves with a good book is enough to promote a warm feeling of relaxation and contentment. It’s without a doubt one of the purest forms of escapism, and one that you can do right from the comfort of your own home. But could reading have mental health benefits that extend beyond relaxation?
A 2015 study conducted by The Reading Agency found that reading leads to better communication between parents and children, increased self-esteem, a greater understanding of other cultures, reduced anxiety and stress, and much more. The Reading Agency, a group whose mission is to celebrate the difference that reading makes to all our lives, set out to learn what the impact of ‘reading for pleasure,’ or ‘recreational reading,’ is on the population at large.
They found that, in addition to reading being closely linked to increasing understanding of our own identities, it can also play a huge part in how we relate to others. According to a 2007 study, “the most consistent outcomes reported were the ability to learn about the self and others, learning about diverse human populations and other cultures and learning about other periods of history. Respondents who read more frequently were also reported to have an enhanced ability to understand other people’s class, ethnicity, culture and political perspectives.”
The benefits of reading expand even further beyond reduced anxiety and stress and a widened worldview. Through a survey and analysis of 51 papers and reports, one of The Reading Agency’s top findings was that reading is linked to good brain health in old age. Reading fiction in particular is associated with a lower subsequent risk of incidents of dementia. Individuals who read less frequently throughout their lifetimes, and therefore did not continue to engage their brains in old age in that way, experienced a mental decline rate 48 percent faster than those who kept their brains active by reading. Much like the heart, the brain is a muscle that needs to be consistently used and maintained for it to function at its full potential throughout our lifetimes.
In some cases, doctors have even prescribed reading (self-help book in particular) as a treatment for mental illness. And in parts of the world, doctors have begun to use a technique they call “bibliotherapy,” or treatment through the use of books, for people with mild to moderate mental health conditions.
However, over the past few years, the number of people in the US who say they read for pleasure has gone consistently down. A 2014 study from Common Sense Media shows that not only do reading rates decline people age, but they’ve also dropped off significantly over the past three decades. In 1984, 8% of 13-year-olds and 9% of 17-year-olds said they “never” or “hardly ever” read for pleasure. In 2014, that number had almost tripled, to 22% and 27%. Girls also tend to read more than boys, as 18% of boys say they read daily, while 30% of girls do.
Digging deeper into the theme of reading and literacy in the US only uncovers more troubling statistics. According to the Literacy Project Foundation, 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth grade level. In a study of literacy among 20 ‘high income’ countries, the US ranks 12th. Six out of 10 households in the US do not buy a single book in a year. Perhaps most alarmingly, 3 out of 5 people in American prisons can’t read. In fact, the Literacy Project Foundation reports that, “to determine how many prison beds will be needed in future years, some states actually base part of their projection on how well current elementary students are performing on reading tests.”
If reading for pleasure truly benefits our mental health throughout our lifetimes, it’s incredibly important to get our literacy rates up, and that starts with our children. Fortunately, there are dozens and dozens of local, national, and international nonprofit organizations exists to do just that. Organizations like Book Aid International, New York-based Pajama Program, First Book, and Reach Out and Read are all working toward a more literate world.
Alter, Charlotte. “Common Sense Media Report: Kids Reading for Fun Less Than Ever.” Time. Time, 11 May 2014. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
Bologna, Caroline. “10 Awesome Book Charities That Help Kids All Over The World.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 11 Mar. 2015. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
“Children, Teens, and Reading.” Common Sense Media, 2014. Web.
Guest, Katy. “Reading Improves Relationships and Reduces Depression Symptoms, Says New Study.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 08 Aug. 2015. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
“Literacy Project Foundation – Statistics.” Literacy Project Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.
The Reading Agency. “Literature Review: The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment.” (2015): 1-39. The Reading Agency, June 2015. Web.