Reading Books Matters to our Health and Happiness: the Growing Research

Reading books and its benefits: making us smarter, healthier, happier.

Research shows that reading books can be a great way to improve your cognitive abilities, relax your body and lower your heart rate, and even enhance how happy you are with life.

Australia Reads has compiled relevant research on how reading is key to being smarter, healthier and happier.

Joseph Addison knew it back in the late 1600s. Before the science existed to back it up he wrote “reading is to the mind what exercise is to the soul”1.

Of course, literature, technology and our lifestyles have come a long way We’ve moved ink block pressing and papyrus scrolls2  to e-books and e-readers, and have integrated reading into our busy lives. But what hasn’t been lost, and what never will be lost, are  the profound effects that reading books, reading  stories, has on us.

These days there is more knowledge about the benefits of reading books. The evidence is growing, supporting what a lot of us bookish-types already experience.

Reading books makes us smarter, happier, and healthier.

SMARTER: Reading books and its impact on our intellect

It’s always been a bit of a trope that the smart kids at school tended to always have their head in a book. But is this because intelligent types are drawn to reading, or is it because books are making them smarter? Research indicates it’s the latter.

Reading for pleasure helps with learning

In her 2015 article ‘The Life-Long benefits of Reading for Pleasure’, Professor Alice Sullivan summarises that “reading for pleasure [is] linked to greater intellectual progress”. This isn’t only in terms of vocabulary, but spelling and mathematics. Interestingly, this study found that the intellectual benefits of reading for pleasure were roughly four times greater than the difference between having parents with and without degrees 3.

This is then supported by more science. Did you know that the stronger reading skills an individual holds, such as rapid naming, word reading, and fluency, leads to more structural development in the frontal and parietal cortical regions of the brain?

Understanding the increase in vocabulary is fairly straightforward. A study by Cunningham et al found children’s books to have fifty-percent more ‘rare’ words in them ‘than adult prime-time television or the conversations of college graduates’ which shows that it is reading volume, not oral input, that is responsible for the differences in vocabularies 5.

It comes down to the differences between written and oral communications. In life, conversations flow freely with little pre-thought and planning. The same cannot be said for texts, in which authors heavily draft and revise before audience consumption. Written languages don’t contain the quirks of conversational language. Not just the ‘um’s and ‘ah’s, but also our colloquial terminology6. It’s not written as a ‘brolly’, but as ‘umbrella’. Not ‘biccy’, but ‘biscuit’. And so forth.

Reading is also especially crucial for developing comprehension. Cain et al points out that while reading a text, the reader has to integrate information spread over sentences, pages and chapters,  while also keeping track of characters, plot lines and other detailed information. As a result, reading is supportive of both inference and integration skills. Understanding a text (inference) is part  of vocabulary extension6.

Going back to Professor Alice Sullivan, you may have noticed the bingo word dropped previously:Maths. Can reading really make you better at math? A survey by The Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute in Japan suggests that this is the case. They believe that reading “helps enhance children’s capabilities of precisely understanding given questions and conditions”, which then helps them to answer math questions.

It is important to note that across several of the studies, the benefits of reading have been to all readers, regardless of cognitive and reading ability. And these benefits don’t just stop at childhood. Reading for pleasure also makes a difference to the rates of vocabulary growth ‘between adolescence and mid-life’3.

One last thing, for all the parents out there. While evidence suggests that television diminishes school performance, it continues to tell us that reading is supportive of school performance. Not to put down television, or anything.

HAPPIER: Reading books and its effect on our happiness

Happiness is linked to stress levels and our capacity to connect with ideas and other people, and there’s growing evidence that reading books can in these areas.

It’s eight at night and you’ve just put the kids to bed, cleaned up dinner, and shoved toys in places they don’t belong. Or maybe you’ve just turned in that major assignment, closing your laptop for the first time since the morning. You can finally relax, but what are you going to do?

Try picking up a book. Did you know that people who regularly read for pleasure are less likely to record high feelings of stress and depression? And that’s just one of the many health benefits to reading.

Quick stats about regular readers9:

  • They are 28% less likely to report feelings of depression
  • One in five claim that their reading habits prevent feelings of loneliness
  • They are 10% more likely to report good self-esteem than non-readers, and this increases to 18% if they read for at least thirty minutes per week
  • They are 20% more likely to report greater life satisfaction.

Escapism and Unity

For a long while now reading has been considered a form of escapism, and it’s for good reason. When we read, we put ourselves into a parallel world where our own worries, anxieties and stresses don’t have a place. However, it can also help create a sense of unity in our struggles, helping individuals realise that problems they face in their own lives are not theirs alone9.

Reading is a mentally and emotionally engaging form of relaxation9, in which we ‘vicariously experience “other” states of being’ – entering a different reality. Through the use of functional MRI’s, Berns et al has been able to observe the brain’s responses to the reading of a novel. Interestingly, there are increases in neural connectivity in the somatosensory cortex of the brain, ‘suggesting that the reader is effectively placed in the body of the protagonist’ 10.

Building Empathy

Through walking in characters’ shoes, which is theoretically called embodied semantics maturation can occur10. Judgement can turn into understanding, as we begin to build empathy for the people who aren’t us, but whose shoes we are choosing to walk in10. This ability ‘to understand people’s beliefs, desires, and thoughts’ even when they are different to your own is called ‘theory of mind’. A 2013 study published in the journal Science found those that read fiction may have a stronger ‘theory of mind’ than those who do not12.

Stress Reduction

Stress not only has an impact on the mind, but the body also. In 1992, twenty four healthy adults were prescribed stressful tasks and then told to read to relax. The results? A reduction in anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure. A similar study in students found reading to decrease the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system while simultaneously reducing stress13.

Reading doesn’t have to take up a lot of time to improve your state of mind and help set you on your path to stress and anxiety free happiness. In fact, reading for just thirty minutes a week makes you9:

  • 35% more likely to have greater life satisfaction
  • 57% more likely to have a stronger awareness of other cultures
  • 21% more likely to have a greater general knowledge (great for trivia!)
  • 23% more likely to understand other people’s emotions.

Quit the phone scroll at night and pick up a book, so maybe next time you can be one of the individuals telling us how reading makes you feel happier about yourself and your life.

HEALTHIER: Reading books benefits our health

Getting yourself into a regular reading habit now can provide life-long effects and not just because it will make you smarter and happier. Reading, as what is called a cognitively stimulating past-time, has been found to not only reduce the risks of Dementia10 and Alzheimer’s, but also increase life longevity.

Reading books and the brain

Reading as a way to reduce the risks of cognitive impairments has received a decent amount of attention. In 2013, researchers from Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago discovered that the stimulating effects of reading on the brain may help to slow the onset of dementia15. When the brains of their patients were analysed after death, those who read were likely to have less brain lesions, plaques, and tangles15, which serve as the physical evidence of dementia.

These findings help support an older study by P. Friedland et al, which in 2001 found older adults who did not read or engage in other mentally stimulating activities were two and a half times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s14.

But as mentioned, reading doesn’t just stave off cognitive impairments, but it has also been found to help you read longer. Ahem,, live longer.

In 2016, Levy et al released a study analysing the data of 3,635 individuals who previously took part in the American Health and Retirement Study. The original study had the participants, all over fifty years of age, self-report their readings as a baseline. They were then followed up on for an average of twelve years, their survival being monitored throughout.

Reading makes you live longer

The results are significant, especially for those who already read books regularly. Straight from the camel’s (study’s) mouth: ‘A 20% reduction in mortality was observed for those who read books, compared to those who did not read books’15.

Similar to the studies assessing the effects of reading on intelligence, the advantage of reading books in this study was in spite of gender, health, wealth or education differences15. As a result, the survival advantage of reading books can be dispersed equally among us all. All we have to do is pick up a book and you’ll live longer! So, what are you waiting for? Start reading today and discover a smarter, healthier and happier you.

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could a read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.

— Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (p.209)16

Footnotes:

  1. Denesi, K. (2015, March 31). ‘Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.’ Shine. https://archive.shine.cn/feature/education/Reading-is-to-the-mind-what-exercise-is-to-the-body/shdaily.shtml
  2. The Evolution of the Book. (n.d.). SF Book Reviews. Retrieved August 26, 2021, from https://sfbook.com/the-evolution-of-the-book.htm
  3. Sullivan, A. (2015). The Life-Long Benefits of Reading for Pleasure. The School Librarian. The Life-Long Benefits of Reading for Pleasure
  4. Houston, S. M., Lebel, C., Katzir, T., Manis, F. R., Kan, E., Rodriguez, G. R., & Sowell, E. R. (2014). Reading skill and structural brain development. Neuroreport, 25(5), 347–352. https://doi.org/10.1097/WNR.0000000000000121
  5. Cunningham, A., & Stanovich, K. (2003). Reading Can Make You Smarter! Principal.
  6. Cain, K., & Oakhill, J. (2011, July 19). Matthew Effects in Young Readers: Reading Comprehension and Reading Experience Aid Vocabulary Development—Kate Cain, Jane Oakhill, 2011. Sage Journals. https://journals-sagepub-com.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/doi/10.1177/0022219411410042
  7. Jiji. (2018, November 23). Reading improves children’s math skills, Japan survey finds | The Japan Times. Japan Times. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/11/23/national/reading-improves-childrens-math-skills-japan-survey-finds/
  8. Romer, D., Bagdasarov, Z., & More, E. (2013). Older versus newer media and the well-being of United States youth: Results from a national longitudinal panel. The Journal of Adolescent Health: Official Publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 52(5), 613–619. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.11.012
  9. Billington, J. (2015). Reading Between the Lines: The Benefits of Reading for Pleasure (pp. 6–9). Galaxy Quick Reads.
  10. Marshall, R. (2020). Reading Fiction: The benefits are numerous. British Journal of General Practise, 79.
  11. S.Berns, G., Blaine, K., J. Prietula, M., & E. Pye, B. (n.d.). Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain | Brain Connectivity. Mary Ann Liebert Inc Publishers. Retrieved August 26, 2021, from https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/brain.2013.0166
  12. Whiteman, H. (2016, December 10). Five ways reading can improve health and well-being. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/313429
  13. Rizzolo, D., Zipp, G., Simpkins, S., & Stiskal, D. (2009). Stress Management Strategies For Students: The Immediate Effects Of Yoga, Humor, And Reading On Stress. Journal of College Teaching and Learning, 6, 79–88. https://doi.org/10.19030/tlc.v6i8.1117
  14. Whiteman, H. (2016, December 10). Five ways reading can improve health and well-being. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/313429
  15. Bavishi, A., Slade, M., & Levy, B. (2017). THE SURVIVAL ADVANTAGE OF READING BOOKS. Innovation in Aging, 1(Suppl 1), 477. https://doi.org/10.1093/geroni/igx004.1696
  16. Smith, B. (1992). A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Cornerstone.

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