Welcome back to your life as you never knew it. Welcome back to the 2020s. Welcome to the new year.
You might think I’m going to take on the big topics of the day, but I’m not. You’ve had enough of that surely. Instead, I’m going to try and talk about something different, something you might not have heard about yet. And guess what, I’m not going to use the C word, not even once. Cool, right?!
I’m not trying to minimise what’s going on, but I don’t think you need me to chip in my two cents. The topic gets thoroughly chewed through every day. Besides, I am not qualified to give you statistics, numbers, data, and I refuse to give you mere platitudes. I am not a scientist with cutting-edge insights, or a news outlet with a breaking update from parliament.
I’m a Londoner, and we tend to be survivors. Survivors of floods and flames, world wars and terrorist bombings, yes. But also, survivors of the human crush on commuter trains, the armpits of rush hour tube, alarming crowds and stale air, infinity of grey drizzle, coffee gaspingly overpriced and flats so startlingly cramped you are suddenly a spider in a matchbox. We had to cope with them daily. Now we have new circumstances, but we can find ways to cope with them too. I’m a Londoner, so what I can offer is a tool.
No, hear me out, don’t roll your eyes. Stay with me. Here’s the thing, I’m not just recommending reading for pleasure. It’s reading for wellbeing.
I know you think reading is obvious. Maybe you think it’s fuddy duddy. Probably it’s already part of your every day. I’m still going to advocate it. I’m here to pitch you reading as the latest in self-care, in lockdown entertainment and in coping mechanisms. I’m going to prove it’s good for your mind, body and soul. Just keep… well, reading.
- Less Stress
We used to get stressed by the frenetic pace of city living. Now we’re stressed because we’ve been shut-in. And we all know stress is a killer, but did you know reading is actually a scientifically proven stress buster?
A study in 2009 found that burying your nose in a book was as effective at reducing stress as doing yoga. As little as half an hour of reading showed results, and researchers suggested it could be used to regulate stress throughout the day or for ‘immediate stress reduction before examinations, practicals, presentations’, just like exercise, breathing techniques or meditation.
Another study found that reading silently for six minutes reduced heart rate, eased muscle tension, and relaxed people faster than listening to music, going for a walk, or sipping a cup of tea.
It is also valuable as a bedtime ritual, as recommended by the Mayo Clinic. More calming and comforting than zonking out in front of the screen, and definitely better than blasting yourself with blue light from the phone, reading is the perfect way to wind down, especially since e-readers and tablets have been shown to actually harm your sleep.
- Happy Therapy
Reading is good for your mental health. In 2010, researchers investigated the benefits of reading in relation to wellbeing.
The clinical data indicated there was significant improvement in depressed patients who spent 12 months attending reading groups. The participants reported feeling more confident, more willing to talk and valued the activity as being meaningful, helping them relax, put personal thoughts aside and concentrate their attention.
Further, they found that classic literature and poetry helped focus and engaged participants by letting them discover forgotten ways of thinking and feeling.
- Train the Brain
Just like going for a regular jog exercises your body, so regular reading gives your mind a good work-out and can actually increase your brain power.
Engaging your mind through the written word has been shown to improve memory, keeping you sharper for longer. There’s a pay-off in old age too: those who read frequently can add extra years to their life and are 2.5 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s. The impact is greater when you read literary fiction rather than non-fiction, so forgo BBC news for a good old-fashioned novel.
It’s also a tonic for the modern way of life: we’re now in the habit of checking our phones, our emails, talking to a flatmate about lunch and working all at the same time. This ADD-like behaviour actually lowers our productivity, whereas reading retrains our brain to focus. The bricks-and-mortar gyms might be closed, but nobody can keep us from doing mental gymnastics.
- Joy in Employ
Higher reading skills correlate with better professional prospects, according a research report, ‘More than 60% of employed proficient readers have jobs in management, or in the business, financial, professional, and related sectors; only 18% of basic readers are employed in those fields’. Proficient readers were also 2.5 times more likely to earn $850 or more a week.
The reasons may not be immediately obvious, but they are multiple: reading advances your general knowledge, widens your vocabulary and improves cognitive ability. It has also been shown that reading for pleasure is key to our intellectual development and makes us better at learning in general. This might sound vague, but these are transferrable skills that could help you in many ways from writing an irresistible cover letter, to acquiring new skills super-fast, to making yourself stand out with eloquently witty banter.
There’s another dimension to this that resonates these days in particular: if you should ever find yourself in dire straits, remember that although you can lose a lot in life – your possessions, your money, your job and even your health – knowledge can never be taken from you, and is likely to help you recover from tough times faster.
- Makes you a Better Person
Yes, really. In some ways this is obvious: books about complicated topics such as racism, poverty, women’s issues, teen angst, bullying, sexual orientation etc. can give us valuable insights into how other people live, what they feel and think.
It’s logical therefore, that avid bookworms may also be seasoned psychologists. This seems logical and obvious, but in case you wanted academic endorsement, here’s a quote from Kieth Oatley, professor at the University of Toronto: ‘people who read fiction may understand people better than others’.
Elsewhere, science has found that people who read literary fiction test higher for empathy. The behaviours and experiences of book characters gives us a safe place to explore the full range of what we’re capable of understanding as individuals and as humans, and this level of empathy boosts our ability to form meaningful relationships. A valuable asset under any circumstances.
Reading is always good – enjoyable and engrossing – but we tend to get lazy about it. We are jerked away by the bleep of WhatsApp, the ding of iMessage and the lure of Netflix. We tell ourselves we’re too tired and too anxious to get stuck in. But reading for wellbeing, as well as for pleasure, can give you extra motivation. It is a kind of rebrand for reading, to show how valuable it really is, and how well it can fit into your new life – not the normal one – the new one.
So stop refreshing the feed and bypass the binge watching. Go, crack open a book, hear its spine creak, the pages murmuring, beckoning. This is our call to arms, a sedentary revolution in times of chaos. Welcome to a new kind of reading. And welcome back to Londnr.