The other day, I went to a training session at work called ‘Dealing with feeling’. Initially, I thought I was signing up to a management course, but when I got there I discovered it was all about managing your own difficult feelings, therefore improving ‘wellbeing’.
To warm the group up, we were split into pairs to discuss our favourite books or films, then asked to present our partner’s choice back to the room. It soon became evident that everyone in the room had chosen to talk about their favourite films, at which point I wanted to jump up from my seat and announce “This is why you’re all so stressed. Because you don’t READ” (which would have been very judgemental and not really the mellow kind of behaviour expected in the gathering, so I didn’t).
Later in the session, the lovely wellbeing coach advised us all to try mindfulness as a tool to combat stress, sadness or anger. “Appreciate the moment, don’t think about the past or future” she advised. Again, questions bubbled in my mind. Questions like: what if you find mindfulness hard and boring? What if you prefer to guide your mind away from worrying about the past or future by taking it to an exciting, enlightening, imaginary world instead?
For me, reading is mindfulness. As a major worrier, I’ve tried various mindfulness apps and methods, but with little impact. Reading, however, is my ultimate soothing activity – the hobby I turn to in moments of anxiety, annoyance, or when my brain just won’t stop whirring late at night.
The main reason it works is because if you’re reading properly, then there simply isn’t room in your mind for anything else. What sets reading apart from say, watching TV, is that it’s an active process – you have to put in as much effort as the author to create the world that’s written on the page, using your imagination. It’s a cognitive activity, and one that has been shown to keep your mind alert and decrease the likelihood of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Perhaps just as importantly, when you’re reading you’re not fiddling around on your smartphone, and we all know how badly those little buggers are messing with our brains.
Reading also helps put problems into perspective. Whether I’m reading about Becky Sharp’s rise and fall from grace in Vanity Fair, the story of a young Muslim girl whose brother has run off to join ISIS in Home Fire, or a heartbroken dude from Clapham in The End of the Affair, the fact is I’m constantly imagining myself in someone else’s shoes.
A study by Emory University in 2013 found that when students were asked to read Pompeii by Robert Harris, a book on the devastating impact of the eruption of Vesuvius in Italy, there was increased activity in the sensory motor region of their brains. Essentially what this showed was readers felt emotions similar to those reported by the characters in the book – when you read fiction, you’re basically trying out the experience of being someone else, seeing what they see and to some degree, feeling their emotions.
In doing so, how can you not become a more empathetic person? And, in relation to your own emotions, it helps you realise that the ups and downs you’re going through are part of something bigger – the highs and lows of human experience. Of course, that doesn’t mean any negative feelings simply evaporate, but I certainly find reading is a soothing tonic for a troubled mind, and more restorative than fretting away the minutes unable to engage with the Headspace app.
One final stat for you – six minutes of reading can reduce stress levels by 68%. SIX MINUTES. If mindfulness and meditation work well for you then by all means keep going with the zen life. But if you’re looking for a way to bring more serenity to your life, increase your understanding of others and, pleasingly, an excuse to curl up on the sofa with a cup of tea for half an hour – it’s time to get reading.