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One in three adults in the UK – or 16m people – rarely or never read for pleasure. A new survey of 4,164 adults, including both those who read and those who don’t, found that adults who read for just 20 minutes a week are 20% more likely to feel satisfied with their lives.
Our research was not focused on people who are unable to read as a result of literacy difficulties or other impairments. We looked instead at people who can read – and often have been regular readers in the past – but who have lost the reading habit, often through a significant life-event, such as having children or falling ill. Two fifths of respondents for the survey, which I helped to conduct for the charity campaign Galaxy Quick Reads, cited lack of time as the chief barrier.
Non-readers were 28% more likely to report feelings of depression than those who read regularly for pleasure. One in five readers said that reading helps them to feel less lonely. Both findings resonate strongly with our previous research at the University of Liverpool, in partnership with national charity, The Reader Organisation, on their shared-reading aloud model for adults and children.
Reading produces a statistically significant improvement in symptoms for people diagnosed with depression, chief among which can be feelings of loneliness and isolation. Reading not only helps to introduce or reconnect readers to wider life systems and more broadly shared meanings. It can also remind people of activities or occupations they once pursued, or knowledge and skills they still possess, helping to restore their sense of having a place and purpose in the world.
Reading calls on and helps to find the whole person, not just the depressed one. The notion of “recovery” in such a context is related as much to the rediscovery of old, forgotten, suppressed or inaccessible feelings and experiences as to the discovery of new ones.
In the Quick Reads research, readers reported stronger feelings of relaxation from reading than from watching television, engaging with social media, or reading other leisure material such as magazines. Reading is associated with a particular kind of mentally and emotionally “engaged” relaxation, quite unlike the passivity associated with other leisure activities, such as watching television.
Many “down-time” pursuits – such as engaging with social media – only apparently help people to “switch off”, and may agitate as much as relax. The concentration which reading demands and the absorption into a parallel world which it produces helps personal worries recede and offers protection from the distractions and stresses of everyday anxiety. In the survey, 43% of readers said reading helped them get a better night’s sleep.
Vainsang, CC BY-NC-ND
Reading also helps people to realise that the problems they experience are not theirs alone. People often experience a strong sense of recognition – “this is me”, or, “I had no idea other people felt this way” – and a feeling of sharing trouble in common with others. When people are able to recognise their own situation in another, they not only feel united to a wider world, but are more accepting of their own difficulties or trouble.
Regular readers report a greater ability to cope with difficult situations. Reading expands people’s repertoires and sense of possible avenues of action or attitude. People who read find it easier to make decisions, plan and prioritise and this may be because they are more able to recognise that difficulty and setback are unavoidable aspects of human life.
In our survey, readers were also 18% more likely to report good self-esteem. It is common for people who are coming back to reading after a long period, or even for the first time, to feel a strong sense of accomplishment and pride.
People who read regularly feel closer to their friends and to their community than lapsed or non-readers. Previous research has shown that, in addition to enhancing willingness and ability to communicate with others, reading helps promote respect for and tolerance of others’ views. The sympathetic intuitions which reading summons can make us more open to others’ experience and make us feel more part of the wider human community.
Reading also gives a currency for sharing experience more meaningfully than is possible in ordinary social conversation. Readers have richer matter to talk about and a greater ability to empathise, resulting in more profound interactions and ultimately stronger interpersonal bonds. Because reading operates at a level deeper than the social norm, it can help to form connections between people who would not ordinarily combine in a friendship or collegial group.
Readers have a stronger and more engaged awareness of social issues and of cultural diversity than non-readers: their template of the world is widened and their place within it feels more secure. Our research found that reading for just 30 minutes a week means you’re 52% more likely to feel socially included than those who have not read in the past week and 72% more likely to have greater community spirit. Readers are also 37% more likely to get greater pleasure out of their social lives.
Reading is not an over-indulgence, but a form of life-support for which we must endeavour to make time.