Reading fiction boosts health, well-being

By Kathy Henderson

When it comes to reading to support your health and well-being, typical recommendations might include classics such as the “Mayo Clinic Family Health Book” or perhaps one of those self-help books to motivate or maintain a healthy lifestyle.

But did you know that there’s a long list of health and well-being benefits that come from reading fiction, your personal choice of fiction, even if it is true crime fiction?

There are enough science-based, peer-reviewed journal research studies to support that statement that the University of Minnesota-­Twin Cities offers a reading fiction class, “Healing Words,” in its course catalogue.

The official course title is “Healing Words: Reading, Literature and Wellbeing” through the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing.

Asa Olson developed the U’s “Healing Words” course from one he previously taught at Gustavus Adolphus College in 2019, focusing on the positive effects of reading on health.

In the U’s hybrid course, students “learn what happens cognitively while we read, how people around the world and throughout history have used literature for healing and how you can use literature for your own well-being,” according to the course flyer.

“Reading has many benefits,” Olson said. “There is plenty of research on how reading can help us reduce stress, anxiety and blood pressure, and how reading can aid us in sleep readiness and prevent cognitive decline.”

For example, in her book “The Art of Mindful Reading: Embracing the Wisdom of Words,” bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud wrote, “Research has shown that reading provides as much relaxation as meditation, and just six minutes reading can de-stress more than listening to music, drinking tea or going for a walk.”

“Reading can contribute to our well-being in other ways, too,” Olson added. “It can be a way to learn and to understand or process our emotions. Reading stories can help us find or explore purpose, hope and vocation, as can telling our own stories.”

Reading fiction can build more empathy for a situation than reading about it in a published report or professional journal.

Academic researcher Rosemary Marshall succinctly noted, “Metaphorically walking a mile in the characters’ shoes can transform judgement into understanding.”

Reading is never truly a solo act either, Olson points out. “It can help us connect with individuals in our own communities as well as across time and space, by finding acknowledgment of our experiences in others’ stories. We can find a sense of belonging with our book clubs as well as with characters and authors who lived in other countries and centuries. All of these things contribute to our well-being.”

The St. Paul Public Library’s “Book Club in a Bag” makes it easy and convenient to start or support a book club. According to St. Anthony Park Library Associate Alisa Mee, SPPL owns 192 adult book club sets, 62 for children and 17 for teens. “Each bag contains 10 copies of a single title for book clubs to check out,” she said. “Families can start their own children’s book clubs, or teachers can use them with their students.”

The St. Anthony Park Library’s adult book club “has been going on for many years, with only a break for Covid,” Mee said. Members select the book they want to read according to their interest and availability. The February selection was the historical fiction work “West with Giraffes” by Lynda Rutledge.

Mee also provided the names of the top five fiction books checked out of the St. Anthony Park Library in 2023: “Demon Copperhead” by Barbara Kingsolver; “Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus; “I Have Some Questions for You” by Rebecca Makkai; “Hello Beautiful” by Anne Napolitano; and “Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club” by J. Ryan Stradal.

Crime fiction, such as the popular “I Have Some Questions for You,” that might be discounted as frivolous or easily predicable entertainment, also has a solid role in a reader’s health and well-being. Studies show that among its value to readers are catharsis (safely feeling and processing emotions), distraction and sense of closure.

The positive benefits from reading fiction don’t differ if one selects print, eBook or audio book format. Stevie Shively, who taught the “Healing Words” course last fall, encourages her students to try all three. 

Kathy Henderson lives in St. Paul and is regular freelancer for the Bugle.

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