Random thought: Reading CAN make you happier!

I forget that I have a digital subscription to the New Yorker. I took it out so that I could access their archive of Murakami short stories. The email plops into my inbox every week and I think, ‘Oh yes, I must make time to read that.’ Somehow I rarely do.

Today I did, though, and I found an interesting article on bibliotherapy. Because I often use reading as a means of escape from the harder parts of my own life and am interested in how reading makes me feel and helps me make sense of things that trouble me, I’ve read other articles in the past about the research into the effects of reading on the brain. I recall being very interested around 5 years ago in the research mentioned in the article that claimed reading stimulates brain cells in a similar way to going through the experiences we read about ourselves.

That ability to learn from a fictional experience and test out how I might react in a similar situation interests me, but more interesting to me is the opportunity reading gives me to experience something I will never experience in reality. My skin colour won’t change. My cultural background won’t change. My gender and sexual orientation won’t change. It doesn’t replace having conversations with people and learning about their experiences, of course, but reading about different experiences briefly puts me in someone else’s shoes. Seeing things from another’s viewpoint is something I should do more of. That’s why I added reading differently to my personal reading challenge for this year.

I also learned from this article that bibliotherapy as a recognised therapy has a 100 year tradition, dating from servicemen returning from the First World War. That soldiers in Britain were given Jane Austen novels made me smile. Traumatised by the carnage and senseless death that surrounded you in the trenches? Here are some books about how people might be silly or irritating and have their priorities wrong but at heart they are basically doing their best in a perplexing world. I liked the reference to George Eliot undertaking guided reading to help her work through grief, too. That she gained companionship (and her future husband!) in reading made it seem a more complete therapy than the one the article’s author experienced.

Because I can understand, in the context of a solitary bibliotherapy like the one featured in the article, the quote from Suzanne Keen:

Books can’t make change by themselves—and not everyone feels certain that they ought to. As any bookworm knows, readers can also seem antisocial and indolent. Novel reading is not a team sport.

I’m not a member of a reading club. The ones that happen near me seem to be daytime groups, plus I’m a tad antisocial! I do see the joy in reading something and discussing it, and externalising my thoughts. I do that with friends, and I do it online. Reading about something and then telling yourself you’d behave differently as a result is probably less likely to result in actual change than reading with someone else and discussing how you might change.

For me, reading as therapy is definitely reading as escape, so I liked this line:

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.

That’s what I enjoy about reading when I’m travelling home from work. That escape into a different reality that draws a line between what might have frustrated me during the day and the work-free evening ahead. When I used to drive to and from work, any frustration about work was magnified by frustration with other drivers and the volume of traffic on the road. It’s only since I’ve been commuting by bus and had that opportunity to escape into another world that I’ve realised just how angry I was. All the time, not just in response to things I should feel angry about. A good friend said to me recently that my Facebook updates are considerably more mellow these days!

Having had a bout of insomnia recently, though, and a return of my anxiety related depression, I’m not entirely sure I agree with this:

Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.

Maybe if I read less, I would feel more depressed. I’m not about to find out. Anxiety and depression runs in my family. I don’t know if it’s a hard wired genetic thing or an environmental thing, but parents and siblings all, we have always been predisposed to feeling anxious when we don’t achieve. For me, that sometimes tips over into things I do for pleasure. Ah, humans. We are such strange creatures!

I sometimes feel panic about reading. I feel overwhelmed by the number of books in the library and in book shops to the extent that, if I haven’t got a plan for how to choose a book, I have to leave or I’ll have a panic attack. I also get into competition with myself and can make myself anxious that I’m not reading enough books or the right books or a good variety of books.

Book panic is a common thing, apparently. The article’s author points out that one of the ailments listed in The Novel Cure is “overwhelmed by the number of books in the world”. The bibliotherapist she saw, who is also co-author of The Novel Cure, said bibliotherapy is a solution to this feeling. Of course.

Finally, I enjoyed how the ailments in the book are tailored to the country of publication. There are a few gems picked out in the article. One of the Italian additions in particular.

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