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How reading improves your mental health and wellbeing
Great news for avid readers: reading, particularly as a leisure activity, has been proven to support and improve mental health.
It has a demonstrable impact on common symptoms of loneliness, social (im)mobility and dementia(this will open in a new window) and studies have indicated that reading can enhance social, mental, emotional and psychological wellbeing(this will open in a new window) in patients with depression. It increases empathy, raises self-esteem, improves employment opportunities, and inspires creativity.
Reading for pleasure reduces psychological distress(this will open in a new window) for college students, it improves theory of mind,(this will open in a new window) and it develops resilience and wellbeing for older people.(this will open in a new window) So much so, the Mental Health Foundation advises reading books(this will open in a new window) and playing musical instruments as a way to preserve mental health in older age.
As expressed by one of the pupils taking part in Reading Schools(this will open in a new window),
[Reading] helps calm me down when I feel anxious and makes me feel better when I'm sad because it's like returning home.
Quality of life and life expectancy
A 2015 study found that non-readers are 28% more likely than readers to report feelings of depression. The same study reported that one in five readers say reading stops them from feeling lonely(this will open in a new window). Additionally, those who don't own a book of their own are twice as likely to have low mental wellbeing(this will open in a new window) than they are to have high mental wellbeing.
However, when people reach a certain level of reading comprehension and ability – as reported by the National Literacy Trust (NLT) – they cross the 'autonomy threshold,(this will open in a new window)' where 'their choices and actions are the overriding factors in determining their life chances, rather than the circumstances that low levels of literacy dictate for them.' In other words, reading provides a direct link to greater self-confidence, self-esteem, job prospects, and escaping the cycle of poverty.
Literacy, in this way, is intricately linked to life expectancy:
- People with poor literacy levels are more likely to be unemployed, have low incomes and poor health behaviours, which in turn can be linked to lower life expectancy.
- Low incomes are associated with higher mortality; the World Health Organization found that children born in low income countries live on average 34 years shorter(this will open in a new window) than children born in high income countries ('A child born in Sierra Leone can expect to live for 50 years while a child born in Japan can expect to live 84 years').
Further study concluded that book readers live longer(this will open in a new window), regardless of other factors!
In 2018, the NLT surveyed nearly 50,000 children and young people to explore the link between reading, writing and mental wellbeing(this will open in a new window). From that research, they concluded:
- Children who are the most engaged with literacy are three times more likely to have higher levels of mental wellbeing than children who are the least engaged.
Their report also discussed 'an enduring relationship between mental health and verbal scores, with those who have low verbal ability having worse mental health outcomes than those with higher verbal ability.' In other words, active readers have, on average, demonstrably better mental health than non-readers.
Similarly, clinical data analysing patients with depression(this will open in a new window) indicated that those who attended reading groups over the course of a year saw 'statistically significant improvements in [their] mental health.'
In 2020, 98% of a panel of Scottish readers said that reading for pleasure supports their wellbeing(this will open in a new window). 92% further said that reading has been important to them in times of stress or anxiety: 'I had a high ACEs score. Books were literally my escape!'
Reading Schools, a programme run by Scottish Book Trust, helps schools build and sustain a reading culture. In the pilot for this programme, teachers and pupils alike commented on how reading directly addressed and remedied low mental wellbeing:
Being able to encourage staff and pupils to access books and have that time to relax with a story and take themselves off to another place for even a short time has been really helpful for everyone's mental health.
[Reading] takes my mind off all the things that are worrying and takes the stress away.
What Scottish Book Trust is doing
A country that loves reading is a strong, fair and tolerant country where everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive. By supporting our work you can help us give every baby, child and adult in Scotland an equal chance to enjoy and benefit from the transformational power of the written word and crucial access to better health and wellbeing.
Find out how you can become part of our story.
Check out our online resources for mental health and wellbeing:
- Research on mental wellbeing through reading in lockdown
- Our Reading is Caring programme – uses reading to support people living with dementia and anyone who cares for them
- Journalling for wellbeing
- Children's books exploring mental health and wellbeing
- Teen books on mental wellbeing