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why reading can unlock happiness

Why Reading Can Unlock Your Happiness

Reading is more than just going through lines of text.

It is an essential way to gain ideas and knowledge, to help a person evolve, build, create, and construct meaning in their lives.

Reading can allow you to engage with another person of distant times far off, while also discovering something very deep within. It gives us the means to pursue knowledge, be better than yesterday, and independently enjoy the silence.

The act of reading is something we all need to do more of as it is one of the truest ways to unlock happiness.

The effect of reading

We’ve all heard it since we were young. How reading is good for the mind.

But have you ever stopped to think, what exactly it is that reading does to us? What are these positive effects that the act of reading has on our lives?

“A mind needs books just like a stone needs a wet stone”

— Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones

Reading heightens empathy

Sure, it is ridiculous to think that reading can solve all of our problems, but what it can do is increase empathy.

Research has shown that people who read fiction have a heightened ability to understand the feelings of others. This is most likely due to the fact that people who read literary fiction explore the inner lives of the characters within the book, experiencing their journey, emotions and more.

In 2006, Keith Oatley, a director of the Cognitive Science Program at the University of Toronto did research that found a strong relationship between those who read fiction and an increased performance on tests that measured empathy.

Adding to this, there have been countless studies that have demonstrated how Adding to this, there have been countless studies that have demonstrated how diving into literary fiction specifically — more than any other genre — improved what is called the ‘theory of mind‘.

This is the ability to comprehend other people’s beliefs and desires that may be different to our own. The theory of mind is said to be important for nurturing and maintaining social relationships. This is without a doubt something we all need a bit more of, especially in an age where things like cyberbullying and social anxiety are at all-time highs.

Reading improves communication

Another positive effect of reading is the improvement of communication, as we can learn to speak and write better.

We all know that reading books can help to expose you to new words, and people tend to learn better through context.

two woman communicating

Beyond boosting our overall social skills, communication is something that we all look for, whether it’s in a friend, a partner, or for work. In fact, for countless years, employers note that communication-related skills remain among the top skills sought in an employee.

Reading strengthens memory

There is a whole lot going on in the brain when you are reading.

When someone is actively reading, diving deep into a character or story, their brain is simultaneously learning, memorizing, and recalling a multitude of names, concepts, ideas, and relationships.

It’s no surprise that this repeated process is key to training the brain to retain new information.

Reading improves cognitive development

Moreover, although this is a no-brainer, active reading of good quality material can help improve overall levels of intelligence, thereby making you smarter. As illustrated in the paper, What Reading Does for the Mind by Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich, they discovered that reading “carried profound implications for the development of a wide range of cognitive capabilities.”

Knowledge is cumulative and can grow exponentially. When a person has a strong knowledge base, it’s easier to learn new things and solve new problems. Reading a wide range of books can help expand a person’s general knowledge while diving deep into a given subject can extend depth and specialty.

brain figurine

The act of reading literally changes your mind.

Research shows that the reading requires the use of a complex network of connections and signals in the brain. The more you read, the stronger and more sophisticated those networks become.

In one study, researchers measuring the effect of reading a novel on the brain, observed multiple participants over a 9-day period. They discovered that as the participants dove deeper into the book, the more their brain lit up with neural activity.

As the days passed, brain scans showed better brain connectivity, especially in the somatosensory cortex — the part of the brain that receives and processes sensory information across the body.

Reading provides moment of pause

Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University explains how reading can also give us moments to pause, time to reflect, and organize our thoughts.

“We are forced to construct, to produce narrative, to imagine. Typically, when you read, you have more time to think. Reading gives you a unique pause button for comprehension and insight.”

— Maryanne Wolf

Not only do meaningful moments of self-reflection help increase our levels of happiness, but they can provide some much-needed silence — something humans aren’t getting much of in today’s noisy digital world.

The overarching fall of reading

Over the last few years, the generation of social media and online technologies has definitely shown to be less excited by reading. In 2019, one study revealed how 26% of kids under the age of 18 spent some time reading each day, which remained the lowest daily level recorded since 2005.

This comes to no surprise as screens have inevitably replaced books as a form of entertainment, and even now, online learning and education has grown substantially, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. Popular online education platforms like EdX being acquired for $800 million USD is just another nod to this reality.

Modern-day children are less socialized in a book-based environment and culture. Their attention spans are drastically shrinking and as indicated from the digitized experience of learning, even textual reading is being experienced through a screen.

man using smartphone while using headphones

Moreover, reading requires a greater conscious effort than gaming, listening or viewing, which may be why a lot of people are straying away from the act of reading itself.

The recent rise in reading

Nevertheless, hope is still not lost, as the recent pandemic flipped the world upside down, and in turn, changed reading habits — surprisingly for the better.

There has been a surge in reading since the global pandemic, as the lockdown itself has caused many people to return to this good old habit.

A survey by Nielsen Book found that people in the UK had doubled the time spent reading books ever since the lockdown began. In addition to this, the research indicated that there was an increase in the amount of time spent reading books as well, from 3.5 hours per week to six.

The breakdown of UK book sales in 2020.
Image via Publishers Association

Whether its because people are finding more time or they’re simply trying to ease their minds, the fact remains that people have reignited their love for reading. This reality can be seen in the numbers, as sales of fiction books in the UK alone grew by 16%, with both print and digital sales have increased.

Unlocking happiness through reading

In a time of uncertainty, reading has definitely helped to keep our minds off the harsh reality.

But beyond that, reading is helping many people to become re-inspired and in all likeliness, less stressed.

Reading in itself is an act of therapy, calming our nerves and de-stressing us from the chaos of the modern world. In 2009, the University of Sussex discovered that reading helped reduce stress by up to 68%, surprisingly working far better than other relaxation methods like drinking tea or listening to music.

Echoing this point, a survey of 4,000 adults from the University of Liverpool discovered that regular readers were overall less stressed and depressed, with higher levels of self-esteem.

When we escape into our imaginative minds, our bodies are at greater ease. Just a few minutes a day of rekindling a love for reading can do wonders for your mental health. Reading is a building block for a greater sense of self. And as the pandemic and technology pull us further away from everything else around us, it’s time we sit down, grab a book, and learn to come closer to that great old story that lies within us.