I want to start this article by stating a personal bias. I love reading! It is, quite honestly, one of my favourite things to do (if you asked my wife and children they’d probably say I love it a bit too much!).
I know not everyone enjoys this pastime as much as I do; and I know it can be fun engaging in other pursuits such as a Netflix binge or social media scrolling. But there really are few things like reading when it comes to boosting your mental health and improving your brain functioning.
Many forms of cognitive stimulation, but especially reading, protect your brain against decline. You’ve probably heard the age-old saying, “use it or lose” it, and this is just as true for your brain as it is for other parts of your body. The sad reality is that many people stop using their brain as much when they leave school, or maybe University, but in doing so they risk jeopardising much of their potential. This can be minimised, or prevented, by regular reading.
Reading also helps keep your mind open to new and different perspectives. Considering and trying to understand different people from different lives, helps us foster understanding and empathy; which in turn can enhance the relationships in our lives and our sense of belonging. Further, reading can actually help us put our own lives in to perspective. Although I wouldn’t recommend comparing suffering, understanding that our worries might not be the worst, or at least knowing that in distress we’re not alone, can be very reassuring and helpful.
Another benefit of reading, and one that I thoroughly enjoy, is the way it can reduce stress. Reading fiction, especially, can be a wonderful source of excitement and escapism, temporarily taking us away from the stresses and strains of daily living, and transporting us to other worlds where we can fantasise and dream. This should not be underestimated, as it can also contribute to growth of our imaginations and ultimately, greater creativity.
Reading can even provide a de facto form of therapy. Many of the great characters in the best novels face, at some time and in some way, different forms of adversity. And in many cases they navigate these difficulties, learn ways through, and come out as better or stronger people. We can learn from these fictional accounts, gain inspiration, and even find ways to implement similar strategies or solutions in our own lives.
Given insomnia is one of the most common contributing factors to mental ill-health, as well as being one of the most common symptoms of mental ill-health, the great news is that reading is also one of the simplest and best night time activities for anyone wanting to improve their sleep. Ideally, in the 60-90 minutes prior to the desired sleep time, we should engage in relaxing and calming activities, and we should refrain from looking at screens. That’s right, as hard as it might sound, the advice from all sleep experts is to turn off the TV, put away your smartphones, tablets and laptops, at least an hour (if not more) before going to sleep. The good news is that reading is one of the best things you can do at this time to relax and get to sleep faster.
To conclude, let’s not forget that reading can be very pleasurable. And pleasure, not surprisingly, is wonderful for our mental health. Too often, discussions about mental health are all about managing the negatives; but it’s hard to really be mentally healthy without some positive inputs too!