Can reading make you happier? Learn how to find yourself in a good book

Getting lost in a book is one of the many pleasures of reading, but this emotional connection can lead to unexpected self-discovery too. Sarah Ditum finds out how words on a page can become part of your own personal story

Woman reading a book

When I was 21, with my baby son balanced on my lap and my mind on a suspended degree course I could hardly imagine going back to, I started reading Middlemarch. I read: “Many have been born who found for themselves no epic life; perhaps only a life of mistakes…” By the time I’d finished the novel I knew two things. Firstly, that having a child was not a full stop on my life. Secondly, that 130 years earlier, George Eliot had seen all the conflicts between domesticity and ambition that I was feeling, and given them to the character of Dorothea Brooke. However isolated I felt, I wasn’t the first to fear that I was living a life of mistakes.

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There are many reasons to read, from the sheer escapism of shutting out the world and losing yourself in a story, to the kind of purely functional reading you do to extract the facts in the shortest possible time. But reading for pleasure can also be profoundly therapeutic, providing emotional connection and unexpected self-discovery.

“There’s a quote we always come back to from James Baldwin,” says Emma Walsh of The Reader, a social enterprise which runs shared reading groups nationwide. “He said: ‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.’” Baldwin was speaking in the 1960s; the idea that reading can have a healing quality goes back at least to the classical period, but in recent years that belief has been bolstered by some persuasive research and the emerging discipline of ‘bibliotherapy’.

There’s evidence that reading books is associated with improved wellbeing, benefits people with subthreshold depression, and may even promote longer lifespans. We don’t know in all these cases whether reading causes the improvement, or whether people who read are just more likely to live longer and be happier for other reasons, but a 2013 study published in the journal Science did find a causal link between reading fiction and improved “theory of mind” (the ability to imagine other people’s mental states – ie. empathy). However, the researchers found that this wasn’t true for all books. The effect was only seen when subjects were given challenging literary fiction. At The Reader, Emma says that “great literature” is at the forefront of what they do. “That might sound elitist,” she acknowledges, “but what we mean is literature that makes you feel something; authors who make you imagine it yourself.”

The reading groups themselves are anything but elitist. The Reader works in prisons, in probation settings and with care-leavers, as well as running community groups – while the volunteers who lead them come from a wide range of backgrounds, and many started out themselves as group members. “It’s always interesting to see people’s reactions to reading Shakespeare for the first time. They suddenly think: ‘I can do this, this isn’t just for other people, this is for me.’”

The experience of reading as a group is essential here. By bringing together people who in turn bring their own histories and experiences to the text, The Reader allows participants to find unexpected meanings, even in the most familiar pieces of writing. Something you’ve read 100 times before might be entirely transformed when you see it through someone else’s eyes.

It’s also true that the experience of reading out loud and being read to, which is integral to The Reader’s groups, can be enormously powerful. For novelist and nature writer Melissa Harrison (author of Clay and At Hawthorn Time), that’s where one of her most important reading experiences began: with her mother reading her Brian Carter’s novel A Black Fox Running.

“She had the most amazing reading voice,” says Melissa. “And for a woman who was not particularly maternal, this was the expression of love that there wasn’t so much of elsewhere.” The novel’s Dartmoor setting also held special significance for Melissa, as the location of happy family holidays. “It became a very charged landscape. It was almost like sacred territory.” When Melissa went to university, the book went with her. “It was a talisman. I would open it when I felt sad and lost and frightened, and it became a comfort in those years.” A beloved book, entwined with our personal history, can anchor us in difficult times.

It can also become a sail drawing us forward. When Melissa first started writing, but wasn’t yet sure her descriptive nature writing could be the basis for fiction, Carter’s novel gave her a model. “It became my proof that you could do it. You could write pages and pages about a falcon riding a thermal, and a leaf hitting the surface of the stream and being swept downstream, and that was valid.” This year, thanks to Melissa’s championing, A Black Fox Running has been republished by Bloomsbury. She still feels an intense connection to the book: “It’s wonderful to have done it – in one sense I’m more proud of it than my own books.”

Unsplash/Krisztina Papp

Sometimes, though, the book itself is almost tangential to the benefits that come from reading. That was the case for Anna Brown. In fact, when she first speaks about the book that helped her, she can’t immediately remember what it was called. What she can remember is how she felt when she read it in 2012. Her first, much-wanted pregnancy had been found at the scan to be a molar pregnancy  – a rare complication in which there is no viable baby and the placenta grows abnormally, potentially becoming cancerous. As she recovered mentally from the loss of the baby and physically from the operation, she longed to be able to escape into a book. But, as she explains, she couldn’t. “It was all just a bit too horrendous. I just couldn’t focus on anything. All I could do was look at Twitter and Facebook. I wanted to be distracted from what was going on, but I couldn’t settle.” For someone who’d always thought of herself as a reader, this compounded her distress. She set aside the heavyweight fiction she’d been planning to read, and turned instead to young adult, thinking this would be more accessible. The first YA she tried, she couldn’t finish (“I knew it was going to end in peril,” she explains); the second, however, was an epistolary novel by Jaclyn Moriarty called Feeling Sorry for Celia. And this became the first book she finished after the pregnancy.

“That was a turning point for me. I remember sitting in my bedroom and thinking: ‘I read a book! I finished a book! Things can go back to normal at some point. If I can achieve that, then I can live my life again.’” Feeling Sorry for Celia didn’t become a treasured book for Anna in the way that Black Fox is for Melissa, but it showed Anna the way to a future she could hardly imagine right then. “It was the book that, not pulled me through, but was symbolic of me being able to come back to myself after this experience,” she explains.

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A book is only marks on paper until it finds a reader. Every reader creates a subtly different version of each book, as we bring our own histories to the page, and every book creates a subtly different version of each reader, as the words we read leave their marks on us. Years after my first reading of Middlemarch, I went back to the novel. As a flailing new mum of 21, my passionate identification with Dorothea had blotted out much else. At 32, the compromises and frustrations of the other characters were more keenly felt. I’ve just started reading it again: what will I find new in the novel this time, and what will the novel find new in me?

This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 11. Discover our latest subscription offers or order a back issue.