For many people reading is an escape, a wonderful source of knowledge, and not just a leisure activity but a way of life. But did you know that books can also make us happier, healthier and even help us be better people? Here are 5 ways in which books enrich us.
1. Libraries Make us as Happy as Getting a Pay Rise
A new study by the UK’s Department for Culture Media and Sport shows that people can be just as happy going to the library as getting a £1,359 ($2,282) pay rise. The study, which examined the way in which our cultural engagement can affect overall wellbeing, found that frequent trips to the library gave us a similar feeling of wellbeing to things like the prospect of a pay rise, dancing, swimming and going to theater shows.
It’s unclear whether happy people go to the library or whether the library actually makes people happy. Either way though, it seems the library is where the happy people are at. Given that the UK, like the U.S., has seen many of its libraries closed over the past few years, perhaps this research should prompt a rethink about the worth of our libraries.
2. Books Make us More Empathetic
Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, of the New School for Social Research in New York, have authored research which shows a relationship between reading so-called literary fiction (a controversial term but one that usually denotes works outside of genre fiction which are multi-layered and often considered “writerly”, for example “Enduring Love” by Ian McEwan,) and a greater awareness of other people’s emotions as well as a greater ability to empathize.
This isn’t the first research to say that reading fiction can help us better understand each other, either.
Raymond Mar of York University in Canada has authored several studies (here and here) that appear to show people tend to be able to see the world from other people’s perspectives better when they read fiction. Mar has also found that children who are exposed to more fiction are more likely to have a stronger ability to read other people’s intentions than their less literary peers.
3. Books Change Our Brains for the Better
Emory University’s Gregory Berns has found that reading a novel can produce traceable differences in brain connectivity when participants were made to read while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners. This heightened connectivity happened in two areas of the brain. One region that was activated was the language center of the brain, and not too surprisingly, this implies that reading gives us a better understanding of language.
The second area to be changed was an area called the central sulcus. This region is on the boundary of the motor and sensory centers. Essentially the researchers believe that when a narrator in a compelling book tells us of the actions they are undertaking, our brains actually light up (so to speak) as if we were undertaking those actions ourselves. For example, reading about someone running made our brain work as if we were running.
This, at least in part, perhaps explains the profound ways in which books appear to be able to elevate our mood and can help people battle depression.
4. Books Can Help Children Understand Bereavement, Sexuality and Relationships, and More
While no concrete evidence exists that books can help soothe children coping with bereavement, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest that books offer an ideal “safe space” in which to raise issues about dying and bereavement and help children understand these concepts with clarity and sensitivity. Books can also provide a means by which to start an age appropriate conversation about topics like sexuality and gender identity to help give children a nonjudgemental framework in which they feel empowered to ask questions and talk freely.
5. Reading Can Help Fight Off Older Age Decline
We already know that ensuring we have ample mental stimulation as we get older is key to staving off memory loss and mental impairment. Research from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago has found that, among other activities, reading and writing from a young age can significantly help cut the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s by as much as 15 percent (beyond what is explained by plaques and tangles in the brain) while reading in older age itself can cut down mental decline by as much as 32 percent.
If this has convinced you to crack open a book, why not check out Care2′s tips on finding great books for free.
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