As readers, we intuitively know that books help us feel better. When we’re stressed or anxious, we can pick up a relaxing book to calm our minds.
When we’re depressed, we can tumble into feel-good fiction like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or access a world in which other characters are also figuring out why they should stay alive, like The Midnight Library by Matt Haig.
If we’re struggling to sleep, our partner might remind us that we can read a bedtime-friendly book instead of scrolling on our phone.
I wanted to look beyond instinct, though, and compile the most interesting research-backed ways in which books help us to feel better. What’s the science behind bibliotherapy and feeling better with books, especially fiction?
As Thor Magnus Tangerås, author of Literature and Tranformation, explains, books can be both an accompaniment to therapy and a companion for life: “The therapeutic potential of literature is undeniable. Literature isn’t a treatment in itself, but it can supplement treatment.”
One study established that bibliotherapy had six clear functions:
- To show the reader that others have experienced the same problem and they are not the first to do so.
- To show the reader new solutions.
- To help the reader understand motivations people feel when faced with a similar problem.
- To provide facts.
- To encourage a realistic approach to problem-solving.
These are the main benefits of reading, but it turns out there’s a lot more to it that that. Here are 30+ of the best statistics about why books can feel so calming, comforting, therapeutic, and supportive.
Statistics about the benefits of reading
Reading offers a retreat from the world
- The effect of reading a story lingers in our brains, found researchers at Emory University in a 2013 study in which participants read some of Pompeii: A Novel by Robert Harris each night. The morning after reading, researchers found the brain region associated with language, the left temporal cortex, showed heightened connectivity in an fMRI scan, and the activity lingered for five days after the participant finished the book.
- Similarly, the region responsible for bodily sensaions, the central sulcus, also showed increased activity that lingered. The researchers concluded that this supported anecdotal findings that a book can indeed make a reader feel as though they were there.
Books help us feel better
- According to Quick Reads, readers are 36% more likely to pick up a book than talk to a friend when they want break out of a low mood. They add that 19% of readers says that reading stops them from feeling lonely.
- Reading can remind people of activities or occupations they once enjoyed, or knowledge and skills they still possess, helping to restore their sense of having a place and purpose in the world. Dr Josie Billington shares that, “reading calls on and helps to find a more multi-dimensional self – the whole person, not just the depressed one.” (Billington et al, 2012)
- Bedtime ranks as the most popular reading occasion, enjoyed by 75% of readers with half of readers (43%), saying reading helps them sleep better (findings by Dr Josie Billington).
- Quick Reads have found that people who read for just 30 minutes a week are 20% more likely to report greater life satisfaction.
Books can even ease depression
- Quick Reads found that 1.3 million people in the UK rarely read because of depression, despite the acknowledged positive impact reading can have on anxiety and low mood.
- In 2013, a study of 96 patients that suffered with mild depression found that those who read saw improvements in their symptoms. In comparison, those in a control group who didn’t receive bibliotherapy treatment didn’t see any change.
- One study from 2011 found that inmates with depression reported enjoying being able to put aside their personal thoughts while engaged with a book, play script, or poetry collection.
Books can help us to get through the most difficult parts of life
- Quick Reads shared how 2.2 million people in the UK say they now rarely or never pick up a book because of a difficult life event such as ill health (either their own or a close family member or friend), the death of a friend or family member, losing their job or getting divorced.
- Quick Reads added that one in four readers (23%) say that a book has helped them realise that other people have gone through the same thing as them and therefore to feel better about their situation.
- New and returning readers can find a strong sense of achievement from picking up a book, explains Dr Josie Billington: “It is common for people who are coming to reading after a long period, or even for the first time, to feel a strong sense of achievement of completing a book, often for the first time since leaving school, and the experience of pleasure in so doing, help to engender a sense of self-worth.”
Fiction motivates us to take action in our own lives
- When we read about characters and people overcoming obstacles we can be motivated to take action in our own lives, whether that’s running a marathon, starting therapy, or asking our boss for a raise. According to Dr Josie Billington, “Reading can offer richer, broader, and more complex models of experience which help a person to view their own lives from a refreshed perspective. Reading expands people’s repertoires and sense of possible avenues of action or attitude.”
- A 2016 article in Social and Personality Psychology Compass argues that “connecting to story worlds involves a process of ‘dual empathy,’ simultaneously engaging in intense personal processing of challenging issues, while ‘feeling through’ characters, both of which produce benefits.”
- When you read about something your brain reacts as if you’re actually living it. A 2011 study found that the reader’s brain creates intense, graphic mental simulations of the sights, sounds, movements and tastes they encounter in the narrative. This not only allows us to better imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes, but also enables us to experience a wider range of emotions and experiences.
Reading can reduce anxiety
- A 2009 study by Sussex University researchers showed that reading may reduce stress as much as 68%. “It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination,” cognitive neuropsychologist David Lewis told The Telegraph.
- As well as reducing stress, reading can help you sleep. According to the Mayo Clinic creating a bedtime ritual such as reading before bed send signals to your body that it’s time to wind down and go to sleep.
Reading is linked with lower mental decline (and even lower mortality)
- One 2016 study by Yale University School of Public Health found that of 3,635 research participants, older adults who regularly read books had a 20 percent reduction in mortality over 12 years compared to those who did not read. They found that any level of book reading gave a significantly stronger survival advantage than reading periodicals.
- In a 14-year study of 1,962 Taiwanese people aged 64 and above, a reduced risk of cognitive decline was observed among older people with higher reading frequencies versus lower ones at all educational levels.
- A report from PNAS suggests that those who put their brain to work, such as by reading, could be 2.5 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who spend their time doing less stimulating activities.
Reading can increase brainpower
- Psychologists from Washington University reported that every time you read something you build a mental picture (or simulation) of it in your head. This created image weaves into your own experiences and creates a new neural pathway; effectively increasing your brainpower. This in turn strengthens our mental capacities, making us smarter and more capable of remembering things.
- Research has shown that reading not only helps fluid intelligence but also reading comprehension and emotional intelligence, helping you to make smarter decisions about yourself and those around you.
Fiction can help us relate to other people
- Losing yourself in a good book can make it easier for you to relate to other people. According to research published in Science, literary fiction can help its readers understand what others are thinking.
- In one study, prisoners met with a shared reading group on a weekly basis to discuss a designated book. The researchers concluded that their findings add to an existing evidence base indicating that Shared Reading has the capacity to “promote wellbeing, and enhance a sense of achievement, self-worth, and social participation.”
- A UK-wide study in 2015 indicated that reading for pleasure is positively associated with a greater sense of community, a stronger feeling of social inclusion, a stronger ability to enjoy social occasions, and enhanced openness and talkativeness.
Reading increases understanding of other cultures
- Reading increases our understanding of other cultures. ‘Some of the most consistent outcomes of the study were the ability to learn about the self and others, learning about diverse human populations and other cultures and learning about other periods of history,’ concluded The Reading Agency. ‘Respondents who read more frequently were also reported to have an enhanced ability to understand other people’s class, ethnicity, culture and political perspectives.’
- The New School for Social Research supports these findings; they established that reading fiction improves ‘Theory of Mind’, which is the ability to empathise with others and understand different beliefs to our own.
- A survey conducted by The Reading Agency in 2020 shared that 65% of reading group participants feel they have a better understanding of the world because of participating in their group, with 87% reporting that they had a better understanding of other points of view.
- Researchers used Harry Potter novels to see whether reading could be used to improve attitudes towards stigmatized groups. After three experiments in which students read passages about discrimination from the books, the students showed changed attitudes about everything from immigrants to gay students, with researchers crediting the books for improving readers’ ability to assume the perspective of marginalized groups.
Benefits for children and young people
- A survey by Scholastic reported that 75% of parents wishes their children would read more for fun. The report suggests that reading out loud to children regardless of their age may inspire them to become more frequent readers – reading 5-7 days a week for fun. More than 40% of frequent readers ages six through 10 were read to out loud at home, but only 13% of those who did not read often for fun were.
- A 2009 study of 72 children aged 8-10 years old reported that reading creates new white matter in the brain, which improves system-wide communication. White matter carries information between regions of grey matter, where any information is processed. Not only does reading increase white matter, it helps information be processed more efficiently.
- Research shows that all types of fiction can generate critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence.
Books can increase mental resilience
- Research has found that fantasy literature can increase young readers’ mental resilience. In books such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, young people can see themselves coping, surviving and learning lessons that may help them to create their own strategies for resilience.
- A 2015 poll by Quick Reads in partnership with Dr Josie Billington of over 4000 people in the UK showed that readers are 10% more likely to report good self-esteem than non readers and those who read for just 30 minutes a week are 18% more likely to report higher self-esteem.
Enjoy more from me
- Retreat into my new book, Your Life in Bloom: Finding Your Path and Your Courage, Grounded in the Wisdom of Nature.
- I'm also the author of Mountain Song: A Journey to Finding Quiet in the Swiss Alps, a book about my time living alone by the mountains.
- If you love books, are feeling a little lost right now, and would love some gentle comfort and guidance, join The Sanctuary, my seven-day course to rebalance your life.