The benefits of reading for your mental health

As the weather starts to cool down, the days get shorter and darker, and our lives get busier, it's extra important to take good care of our mental health. In times like these, we often find ourselves feeling down or overwhelmed, and this has a large impact on our overall wellbeing. 

All four walls of the house need attending to

Hauora, an all-encompassing, holistic Māori concept of wellbeing, is unique to Aotearoa and a wonderful philosophy that we can all live by. It contains four dimensions that are vital to not only individual wellbeing, but that of our communities and country too. Alongside taha tinana (physical wellbeing), taha whānau (social wellbeing), and taha wairua (spiritual wellbeing), taha hinengaro - our mental and emotional wellbeing - is an important facet that we should not forget to care for. 

The four dimensions of hauora are like the four walls of a wharenui or meeting house. Each wall represents one of the four dimensions of health and wellbeing, and all four walls are necessary to sustain the entire house (your health and wellbeing).

There are many ways we can look after our mental health, including spending time with friends and family, exercising, engaging in mindful practices, doing things we enjoy, and taking care of our bodies. One strategy I have loved for a long time is (big surprise coming from a librarian) reading, which is an activity that always helps me to feel better when I'm down. I took some time to look into why books can give us that positive boost, and as it turns out, there are indeed various benefits to our mental health that are brought about by reading!

Here are just a few:

A good way to reduce stress

If I'm feeling anxious, or my life has been super busy, I often find it hard to carve out those moments for reading. After all, when there's a lot of pressing matters on your mind, settling down with a book hardly seems like the most important thing to do. However, by just giving myself a small window of time to read - perhaps 15-30 minutes before bed, or a chapter in my lunch hour - I noticed a significant reduction in my stress levels. Indeed, reading has been shown to take your mind off worries, produce a calming effect, and improve your overall wellbeing. It can even provide you with the motivation you need to make positive changes in your everyday life, like picking up new hobbies, reaching out to friends, being aware of prejudice, and treating our environment with greater respect. Whether fiction or non-fiction, it's amazing what impact the stories we hear can have on us if we simply give them the chance.

Helps you to wind down and sleep at night

I confess, I am both addicted to my phone and a repeat culprit of "revenge bedtime procrastination" (staying up way too long at nighttime to squeeze in the free time I didn't get throughout the day), so I'm not the best person to be giving this advice except in the sense of telling you what not to do. Trust me, when they say that the blue light from our phone screens are terrible for good sleeping habits, they're not lying! Blue light, which emits from our LED devices but also the sun, alters our circadian rhythms. It's handy in the morning, when we want to be awake and alert, but not great for helping us to get those precious 8 hours of sleep at night. And sleep is vital to good mental health.

Is there anything better than reading in bed?

Reading a book before bed is highly recommended (as long as it's not an eBook on your phone, of course). Reading will not only help to relax your mind and make you drowsy, but it's also an activity you can do without any harsh blue light on your eyes. A book is a fantastic distraction from your phone that provides plenty of entertainment and is, in the long run, probably far more satisfying than spending an hour or two scrolling through social media. And if you've challenged yourself to read more this year, spending half an hour each evening reading will bring you so much closer to your goals. Completing a book always makes me feel productive and provides a good hit of dopamine!

Takes you out of everyday life

Books, especially fiction, are gateways to other worlds. If the mundanity of your daily routine is getting you down, then flicking open the pages of a book can take you somewhere new and exciting. If you're feeling lonely, then there are a cast of fascinating characters who you can spend your time with. Sure, a book might not solve all your problems, but it sure can give you a nice respite from everyday existence. Escapism has been one of my favourite forms of self-care since I was a child. While I don't let it take over and cause me to ignore my responsibilities, delving into the world of stories almost never fails to lift my spirits.

Characters can even provide you with some strength and motivation for your own life, as well as providing you with a host of other perspectives. The protagonist's reading experience in the sweet, introspective "Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop" sums it up perfectly:

Immersing herself in the feelings of the characters provided a reprieve from her own. She grieved, suffered, and emerged stronger with them. As if sharing their experiences and emotion would, at the end of the book, allow her to understand anyone in the world.

Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop

One of my favourite things about books is that they give us a doorway into countless other lives, if we only take the time to seek them out. So if life's getting you down, why not try out another one, just for a little while?

So, what should I read?

The short answer is - anything you like! But it may help to pick books that boost your mood - perhaps a light, happy story, or something from your favourite genre? If you prefer non-fiction, reading something inspirational might help you to feel motivated for the days to come. Or if you want an escape from all the troubles and toils of modern life, a good fantasy always helps me to fly away somewhere magical!

Try a few different kinds of books out and see what helps you best. Perhaps the act of reading in itself might produce that stress-relieving effect, or it might simply be reading something that makes you want to keep turning the pages. Once you've found that sweet spot, it'll be no time at all before the positive benefits start flowing through.

More resources

  • Visit our Mental Health page for resources, book lists, websites, links to mental health organisations and other information.
  • If you or a loved one is suffering from a mental health crisis, visit the Mental Health Foundation website to see where you can get professional support and immediate assistance.